Indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilisers has caused immense damage to the soil. This is set to change, says Bhavdeep Kang
IN GREEN-LIGHTING the new “nutrient- based” fertiliser policy, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee pulled off a political coup, overriding the objections of the once-powerful UPA allies, DMK and NCP. What’s more, it is those very critics who will be responsible for the actual delivery of benefits to farmers under the new scheme — which is a tall order.
With Mamata Banerjee’s TMC putting in only a token caveat, the reservations of Union Fertiliser Minister MK Alagiri (DMK) and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar (NCP) were swept aside and Mukherjee walked off with accolades from virtually all the stakeholders.
There are three reasons for this. First, the fertiliser subsidy bill had to be contained, having reached an unmanageable Rs 1,19,772 crore in 2008-09.
Second, there has been no commensurate increase in crop yields — the crop response to fertilisers has diminished steadily, so that the farmer gets much less value for money. Third, improper use of fertilisers has made the soil deficient in a variety of nutrients. Thus, the existing fertiliser policy is acknowledged by industry insiders as economically unsustainable — for both the government and farmers.
Agricultural experts agree that the new nutrient-based scheme (NBS) has the potential to catalyse a turnaround in Indian agriculture, by ensuring targeted delivery of fertilisers, so that crops get only what they need and not a kilogramme more. Farm soil degraded through overuse of synthetic fertilisers will have a chance to recover.
• Only comprehensive soil analysis can determine what nutrients any particular field is deficient in. This has not been happening on the desired scale
• Among the advantages of organic manure is that farmers do not need to be trained in their use
• It thus makes sense to shift the focus of the subsidy policy, which till now has been heavily weighted in favour of chemical fertilisers
• Mostly the choice of fertilisers is determined by price and availability, rather than crop requirements, bringing down crop yields
But this involves a complex logistical exercise: detailed soil analysis of individual farms, determination of what inputs are required, intensive training to farmers and expert knowledge of nutrient application. A senior agricultural scientist at the SKN College, Jobner, observes, “Implementing the new fertiliser policy requires a hands-on approach.We have to fine-tune delivery of soil nutrients, depending on the status of the soil and the nature of the crop.” And considering there are no less than 34 nutrients involved in crop production, this is by no means an easy task.
So there is urgent need for an upgrade. For instance, soil analysis is usually limited to the three primary nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK). At best, a wellequipped Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) might test for three secondary nutrients. But the basic thrust of the NBS is on promoting the use of secondary and micronutrients — and this is not possible without more sophisticated analysis.
If the new policy allows farmers to pick soil-specific fertilisers, instead of indiscriminately dumping sacks of urea, DAP and potash (the three most commonly used fertilisers), they not only save money, they also improve their yield.
The trouble is farmers are ignorant of the technical aspects of fertiliser usage. Their choice of fertiliser is determined by price and availability, rather than crop requirements. So when the price of nonurea fertilisers rises, farmers tend to use less of them. As a result, the use of synthetic fertilisers in India is skewed in favour of the nitrogenous fertiliser, urea. The ideal “NPK” ratio of 4:2:1 is never followed. Mostly it is closer to 20:6:1.
There is thus considerable wastage, as the nitrogen uptake by crops is a lot less than applied to the field. Fertiliser use efficiency is particularly low for phosphorous and nitrogen. Their excess triggers release of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and causes water degradation. Excess of nitrogen is known to encourage certain pests and to interfere with plant metabolism. Overuse can also lead to depletion of soil micro-nutrients.
The NBS allows companies to decide the retail price of fertilisers, because the subsidy on them has to be fixed and linked to global prices. The “floating” price scenario is likely to drive up the cost of non-urea fertilisers when the new regime kicks in, affecting rabi 2010. (Sowing for the kharif season will by and large be over). If the price increase is disproportionate with the 10 percent hike in urea, the imbalance in NPK ratio may become even more pronounced.
The new nutrient-based scheme could bring about a dramatic turnaround in falling crop yields
By giving an additional subsidy for fertiliser “fortified” with secondary and micro-nutrients, the government hopes to promote the development of a new range of customised fertilisers. This would not only benefit existing players like Tata, Zuari and Coromandel, but also encourage fresh investment in the stagnant fertiliser sector, and perhaps reduce import dependence.
BUT THE focus is on enlarging the range of chemical fertilisers, rather than building up degraded soils with organic matter. And restoring soil health and raising the soil’s moisture retention capacity requires large doses of fertilisers — such as manure, vermi-compost, bio-gasslurry and green manure. Also required are biofertilisers — soil micro-organisms that help convert inorganic fertilisers into usable forms.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that foodgrains account for around 32 million tonnes of NPK every year, of which half is replaced by chemical fertilisers. Steady soil depletion, soil erosion, desertification, water-logging, soil compaction and “crusting” are the result.
As even industry insiders admit, only an integrated plant nutrient system (IPNS) can boost productivity; not the current heavy depedence on synthetic fertilisers. The proposed shift towards subsidising of bio-fertilisers finds no mention in the the new farm policy or the Budget.
As farmers opt for soil-specific fertilisers, their savings and yields are bound to soar
A recent Greenpeace India study said over four-fifths of the country’s farmers would opt for bio-fertilisers if these were subsidised and easily available.
The overwhelming advantage of organic manures, and to some extent bio-fertilisers, is that farmers do not need to be trained in their use. These bio-inputs have traditionally been manufactured and used by farmers for millennia, helping preserve soil fertility.
If NBS is intended to help achieve better yields, rather than merely to prune the fiscal deficit, it needs to go a step further. Upgrading and re-orienting the agricultural extension and generous subsidies on bio-fertilisers and organic manures are a necessary corollary.