Excessive use of urea, pesticides has compromised soil fertility
The majority of farms in the Gangetic valley of north India have alluvial soil, one of the most fertile soils in the world,” says Alagh. Yet, soil degradation has been an area of major concern in the past few decades. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had in 2010 estimated that of the country’s total land area of 328.7 mha, nearly 120.4 mha is afflicted with land degradation of some sort, whether water and wind erosion, waterlogging, soil alkalinity or seepage of mining and industrial waste, along with excessive use of fertiliser, intensive cropping and depletion of organic matter.
Indian soil consists of primary nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), secondary nutrients such as sulphur, calcium and magnesium, and micro-nutrients such as zinc, iron, and manganese. “While the thumb rule for using N,P and K fertilisers is 4:2:1, Indian farmers usually end up using 6.7:2.4:1.6, an excess of nitrogen given the overuse of urea, some phosphate and very low levels of potassium,” says Utpal Singh, additional secretary in the Union ministry for agriculture.
This is because of the current regime of fertiliser subsidy. To promote the use of fertiliser by farmers, the central government provides a subsidy to the producers of fertilisers. In 2017-18, Rs 70,000 crore has been allocated to the purpose, the largest after food subsidy. Allocations to fertiliser subsidy have been increasing at an annual rate of 11.4 per cent between 2000 and 2016. Of the subsidy allocated in 2017-18, Rs 49,768 crore has been allocated to subsidy for urea. Currently, the amount of subsidy to be given is determined by the cost of production of the fertiliser company. As a result, companies with a higher cost of production receive greater subsidies. This reduces their
incentive to lower their cost of production. Although urea consumption has been increasing over the past decade, no new domestic production capacity has been added in the past 15 years.
HOW TO FIX IT
Distribute soil health cards to all farmers. The NDA government in 2 015 launched soil health cards, to be is-sued free once in three years to all farmers. "The soil health cards cover six crops of the farmer's choice," says Singh. "The card informs farmers about the nutrient status of the soil and the recommended dose of nutrients to improve soil fertility in order to grow crops of his choice. The use of soil health cards will help bring about soil amendment, optimal use of nutrients, which will reduce excess water, salinity and alkalinity in the soil." The government claims it has distributed 65 million soil health cards so far and aims to cover everyone by 2018-19. "In the next two-year cycle, the plan is to provide soil health cards to 140 m ill ion farmers," says Dr Ashok I)alwai, additional secretary in the agriculture ministry. A committee that examined the role of the Food Corpo-ration of India recommended that cash transfers be made to farmers to replace the current fertiliser subsidy regime. Sources in the agriculture ministry reveal thothy Tuly 2017, the government is likely to restructure the system of fertiliser subsidy. Fertiliser companies will be given subsidy only once the dealer has sold the fertiliser to the farmer. The idea is to pass on the fertiliser subsidy to the farmer instead of the industry. This would also enable farmers to choose fertilisers in the combination best suited to their needs, and help them to fix the fertiliser imbalance in soil. In July 2016, the government had announced that it would be conducting pilot studies of direct benefit transfer in 16 districts in 2016-17. lb prevent diversion of urea to non-agricultural use and make it more readily available to farmers, all subsidised urea now has to be coated with neem. This is something, the government claims, that has led to a 5 to 17 per cent increase in crop yield. 11 Bring more farmers in the ambit of organic farming under the government's Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana.
Parched earth A farmer in Mahoba district, Uttar Pradesh