Healthy growth

Cen­tre plans pro­duc­tion of neem­coated urea, which could boost soil and agri­cul­tural health and growth


RAMESH VIRANI, a 45-year-old farmer from Bhav­na­gar, Gu­jarat, started us­ing neem- coated urea (ncu) for his 4.4 hectares of cot­ton farm last year. “Cot­ton crops are more sus­cep­ti­ble to pest at­tacks, which ncu can counter ef­fec­tively,” he says.But scarcity due to black mar­ket­ing forced him to re­vert to the eco­log­i­cally un­sus­tain­able nor­mal urea.

Mil­lions of farm­ers like Ramesh will not have to suf­fer any more.The Union gov­ern­ment’s re­cent de­ci­sion mak­ing it manda­tory for do­mes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­duce 100 per cent ncu has come as a re­lief to them. Urea from now on will be coated with neem oil. The move will not only ben­e­fit the en­vi­ron­ment and im­prove farm­ers’lives, but curb illegal urea di­ver­sion for in­dus­trial use. “It is a very bold move, which will have far-reach­ing im­pacts,” says Satish Chan­der, di­rec­tor gen­eral, the Fer­tiliser As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia (fai).

Mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits

ncu will ben­e­fit the en­vi­ron­ment in more ways than one. The nor­mal urea is a highly sol­u­ble and volatile ma­te­rial and is up to 40 per cent less ef­fi­cient than ncu. ncu, on the other hand, acts as a phys­i­cal

bar­rier, slow­ing down the process of sol­u­bil­ity and volatil­ity. “Its anti-bac­te­rial process slows down the melt­ing process. This means it stays in the soil for longer pe­ri­ods strength­en­ing its ef­fec­tive­ness,” says Munesh­war Singh, pro­ject co­or­di­na­tor, In­dian In­sti­tute of Soil Science (icar-iiss), Bhopal.

ncu also re­duces the amount of ni­tro­gen re­leased from the soil. “ncu de­stroys the Round­worm par­a­site found in the soil and kills the bac­te­ria which de-ni­tri­fies and pro­duces ni­tro­gen in the at­mos­phere,” says Ramesh C Sax­ena of Neem Foun­da­tion, a Gur­gaon-based non-profit.

“Be­cause of the high pH value of nor­mal urea, it is quite volatile and evap­o­rates fast,” says Singh. “If it is ap­plied on sandy soil, rain­wa­ter washes it off. If the tex­ture of the soil is light, then it per­co­lates, not only mak­ing its use in­ef­fec­tive, but con­tam­i­nat­ing the ground­wa­ter too,” adds Singh.

On the other hand, the use of ncu will in­crease pro­duc­tion—for in­stance, rice grain yields could in­crease by 6.3-11.9 per cent over nor­mal urea, says the In­dian Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute (iari), New Delhi. Stud­ies car­ried out by iari re­veal the use of ncu will re­duce con­sump­tion by 10-15 per cent. “Less us­age will re­duce the lev­els of ni­trous ox­ide and other harm­ful gases, even dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of urea,” says G V Ra­man­janeyulu, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Cen­ter for Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture, Se­cun­der­abad.

Re­duced con­sump­tion and curb­ing di­ver­sion will lead to sub­sidy sav­ings of

` 6,400 crore an­nu­ally. As the gov­ern­ment plans to in­crease pro­duc­tion, im­ports too will de­crease—about 10 mil­lion tonnes is im­ported an­nu­ally as do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion is un­able to meet de­mand (see ‘Urea scape’).

Procur­ing neem oil for ncu also isn’t a prob­lem. Ac­cord­ing to Neem Foun­da­tion, In­dia has 22.2 mil­lion neem trees, and one tree can pro­duce a min­i­mum of six litres of neem oil.It takes nearly four litres of neem oil to coat one tonne of urea. “How­ever, lack of proper sup­ply mech­a­nisms may hurt pro­duc­ers ini­tially,” adds Sax­ena.

Cas­cad­ing ef­fects

The de­mand for manda­tory pro­duc­tion of ncu has been there for long. But suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments never paid heed to sci­en­tists. Though ex­per­i­ments to pro­duce ncu started way back in the 1960s, its im­ple­men­ta­tion was al­ways fraught by po­lit­i­cal de­lays.In 2007,a group of min­is­ters (gom) rec­om­mended manda­tory pro­duc­tion of ncu, but the then chem­i­cal and fer­tiliser min­is­ter, Ram Vi­las Paswan, turned down the pro­posal.

In 2008,the min­istry al­lowed pro­duc­tion (not manda­tory) of ncu up to 20 per cent.In Jan­uary 2010, the min­istry in­creased this to 35 per cent.And in March this year, the nda gov­ern­ment made it manda­tory for do­mes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­duce 75 per cent ncu, which was fur­ther ex­tended to 100 per cent on May 25. It will now be sold to farm­ers at ` 5,628 per tonne.

The gov­ern­ment spends over ` 70,000 crore an­nu­ally on fer­tiliser sub­si­dies.For urea, it pro­vides a sub­sidy of ` 15,000 per tonne. “Agri­cul­tural urea can be used for in­dus­trial pur­poses, mak­ing it prone for illegal di­ver­sion, whereas in­dus­trial urea can­not be used for agri­cul­tural pur­poses,” says D S Ya­dav, di­rec­tor (mar­ket­ing), fai. Es­ti­mates re­veal over one mil­lion tonnes of agri­cul­tural urea are il­le­gally di­verted to in­dus­tries an­nu­ally. “In­dus­tries use urea to pre­pare formalde­hyde, which is used in vac­cines, fur­ni­ture, floor­ing, au­to­mo­bile in­dus­tries and pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als among oth­ers,” says S Nand, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral, fai. “For­ti­fi­ca­tion of urea through neem coat­ing will make it un­fit for in­dus­trial use,” adds Ya­dav.

“Urea is so heav­ily sub­sidised that it is be­ing il­le­gally ex­ported to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries such as Bangladesh, Pak­istan, Nepal and Myan­mar. Pak­istan and Bangladesh pro­vide urea to their farm­ers at US $300 per tonne (about ` 19,280). It is nat­u­ral that illegal ex­ports will con­tinue,” adds Nand.

Be that as it may, the neem- coated eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion is a much-needed bit­ter pill for In­dian agri­cul­ture.

Re­duced con­sump­tion and curb­ing di­ver­sion will lead to sub­sidy sav­ings of ` 6,400 crore an­nu­ally

Neem- coated urea will im­prove agri­cul­tural ef­fi­ciency and re­duce con­sump­tion

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