Soil health initiative weaning farmers off fertiliser overuse
Indian farmers have been overspraying subsidised chemical fertilisers on crops for decades, imperiling public health. The national soil health programme, which completed five years this month, has potentially weaned off nearly 200 million farmers from the practice, leading to more judicious use, higher productivity and better incomes, two public-sector studies have found.
Soil health cards, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, have cut the use of chemical fertilisers by up to 10%, according to the first study by the National Productivity Council. It was carried out in 76 districts, spanning 19 states and covering 170 soil testing labs involving 1,700 farmers.
Farm productivity has gone up between 5% and 6% in assessed crops, resulting in higher farm incomes, the study released this month said. Farmers have also been able to lower cultivation costs, the second study has shown.
The soil health programme pushes farmers to test their soils every two years in state-run mobile and village-station labs. Based on the tests, which analyse the soils on various parameters such as micro-nutrients, soil health cards, they offer customised recommendations on fertiliser use.
According to agriculture ministry data, the authorities have tested and distributed 224 million soil health cards to as many farmers since the programme’s launch.
India heavily subsidises fertilisers, a policy initiated in the 1960s to kick start the Green Revolution. According to government data, the subsidy amount stands at about ~5,100 per farmer.
Cheap availability has resulted in rampant use, particularly of urea, degrading soils to such an extent that yields have started to fall.
Farmers sprinkle several times the recommended dose, throwing the natural chemical composition of soil off-balance. Crops need a balanced diet, much like humans, of key fertilisers such as nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). Overuse of one or the other is common.
The current consumption of NPK ratio is 6.7:2.4:1, which is highly skewed towards nitrogen, against an ideal ratio of 4:2:1.
India consumed about 25.6 million tonne of fertilisers, mostly nitrogen (17 million tonne) followed by phosphorous (6 million tonne) and potassium (2.5 million tonne).
The drive aims to replenish the country’s severely degraded soils and promote a balanced use of chemicals.
Harvir Singh, a wheat and rice grower in Haryana’s Babain village, had never tested his soil before he got enrolled in 2017. “Urea is so cheap that we kept spraying more and more. Initially, it worked like magic. Then, the yields began falling,” he says.
Soil testing showed Singh had been over-applying fertilisers his soil needed in small doses because his farm was naturally rich in those.
Some states are on the brink of a chemical epidemic. Punjab’s consumption of chemical fertilisers far exceeds the national average on a per hectare basis and studies have blamed this for the state’s high cancer rates. Chemicals have found their way into Punjab’s food chain, groundwater and soil.
The second study by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management covered 3,184 farmers who planted cotton, paddy and soybean across 199 villages in 16 states.
Those who applied fertilisers and nutrients according to recommendations written on their soil health cards were reported to have lowered cultivation costs by 4-10%. Net farmer incomes grew between 30 and 40%, the study states.
The second study revealed worrying degradation of soils across regions. Nitrogen, an essential constituent of all proteins, is scarce in the soils of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Phosphorous, which helps plants to convert light into food, is grossly depleted in Himachal, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, parts of Bihar and Jharkhand.
“The authorities have to now ensure that farmers routinely test their soil for sustained gains. It’s not a one-time affair,” said Rajesh Kumar Gunjan, a former faculty member of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.