Farmers in a chemical soup

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

YEARS OF dependency on chemical fertilisers has trapped the villagers of Hathnoor mandal of Narsapura in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh in a vicious cycle. to sustain a decent yield, they must use more and more fertiliser every year. And the more fertiliser they use, the more sterile the soil becomes. the result is spiralling spending on fertilisers and diminishing agricultural income.

“Earlier the land required two bags of fertiliser per acre. Now we need 10. Dependency on livestock has reduced a lot. So we do not have enough organic manure. the costs are rising and we do not see any solution,” says 68-year-old Shivaiah Kankara of Nawabpet village. It’s no surprise that distraught villagers here are increasingly turning to alcohol.

“Zameen main taakat hai hi nahi. Dawa dalne se hi kuch nikalta hai, warna nahi. Mera parivar kuch kha leta hai… (the land has no strength to grow anything. only fertilisers ensure we get something out of it and the family can eat),” says Mohammed Shahabuddin, 40, a farmer with five acres in Nagulapally village.

“Around five years ago, the government introduced fertilisers here. Since then, consumption has been steadily increasing. Each year, I spend close to Rs 1,500 more to buy extra. Leaving a land fallow for a year would mean letting go of the year’s savings,” he adds.

Shahabuddin grows cotton, sugarcane and paddy. As advised by authorities, he has been using generous amounts of urea, DAP, potash, 20:20:0:13 and triple 17 fertilisers. Like lakhs of farmers in the country, Shahabuddin depends on farm loans every year to buy supplies and hire agricultural labour. his loans are mounting every year, while his land gets more and more fallow. Shahabuddin’s story is not very different from that of Prakash of the same village whose family earns about Rs 50,000 each year only to spend Rs 25,000 on fertilisers in the next farming season.

“Heavy application of chemical fertilisers kills the soil. It loses biomass, degrades and erodes. Valuable micro-organisms break down organic matter and release valuable nutrients into the soil. the insects and worms that burrow into the soil and enhance aeration, water movement and water retention are critical to prevent soil erosion or the loss of topsoil. If we have to reverse this trend and save our soil, we need a shift from our current policy of subsidising and pushing chemical fertilisers,” explains Dr Sagari Ramdas, director of Hyderabad based NGO Anthra.

While Nawabpet goes deeper and deeper into debt, not far away, Ramchandrapur has stepped back in time. Like much of Andhra Pradesh, farmers in this Telangana village fear two kinds of extremes every year — too much rainfall and too little. “Loss of topsoil due to excess rainfall is something that worries us as the clay beneath does not absorb water well. therefore, unlike neighbouring villages, we have not taken too many risks with fertilisers,” says 55-year-old Mallesham Sara.

Ramachandrapur has also allocated 56 percent of the village funds towards soil and water conservation and forestry to help preservation of topsoil. But it remains the exception in Medak where the soil is fast being killed by chemicals.

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