Once Lyrically Compared To Gold The Condition Of India’s Soil
Inappropriate use of chemical fertilisers has halved the organic constituents in the Indian soil over the last five decades and yet no mid course correction has taken place. A report on soil health by Greenpeace, a non-profit organisation, that has been campaigning against environmental degradation, has thrown some startling findings. Consider these inferences:
Only one per cent of the 1000 farmers surveyed across five states said that they had received any kind of government support for practicing ecological fertilisation. Ironically, 98 per cent of the surveyed farmers said that they were ready to use organic fertilisers if they were subsidised and easily available. Organic fertilisers are not eligible for subsidy under the Nutrient Based Subsidy model introduced by the government on April 1, 2010. The central government schemes are highly skewed towards chemical fertilisers and there is negligible support for ecological fertilisation. A case in point is the Rashtriya Krishi Vigyan Yojana that has 17 components of which only one is for organic fertilisers. As opposed to this, the chemical and synthetic fertilisers, particularly, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) are highly subsidised.
Yet another cause for concern is that policymakers in India use misleading indicator [Gross Cropped Area (GSA)] of fertiliser consumption by counting the same piece of land.
Hyderabad-based agricultural scientist Dr OP Rupela, who has co-authored the report points out that counting cultivated land more than once raises the total sown area and hence the average consumption appears low. The report recommends that fertiliser consumer per hectare of Net Sown Area (NSA) would be a better indicator while formulating soil health policies. The chemical fertiliser consumption per unit land in 2009-10 as per data collected from 1000 farmers (200 each in one district of five surveyed states) showed that chemical nutrients applied per unit of land area is touching alarming levels—574 kg/ha in Bhatinda, Punjab, 432 kg/ha in Sambalpur, Odisha and 388 kg/ha in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. The report warns that indiscriminate use of these chemical nutrients has adverse effects on the physical, biological and chemical properties of the soil and can affect agricultural production.
He says that there are many farmers who don’t use agro chemicals, be it fertilisers or pesticides. Asked what percentage of farmers are not using agro chemicals for crop production, he said, “Percentage wise, it may be miniscule but its worth asking that if 11 lakh hectares in India and over 320 lakh hectares in the world of land are being cultivated without agro chemicals, why can’t land other than this have crop yield sans agro chemicals”.
Dr Rupela and Mr SR Gopikirishna, authors of the Greenpeace report titled, Of Soils, Subsidies and Survival have proposed setting up of a National Ecological Fertilization Mission with separate budgetary allocation in the union budget. The central government should ensure that such a Mission has provisions for checking indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and promotion of eco-friendly nutrient supplying systems. In their pre-Budget consultation with the Finance Ministry, they will propose/have suggested that farmers who are maintaining soil health, should be given eco bonus.
Speaking to Uday India on the sidelines of the release of the Greenpeace report on the first ever social audit of soil health in India, Dr Rupela who is credited with his out-of-the-box thinking said that if farmers could be encouraged to recycle any crop residue and grow trees on farm boundries for lopping, they would not need to buy chemicals at all. “Every leaf or plant has about 30 nutrients that a crop needs for balanced growth. These include calcium, magnesium, boron, molybdenum, copper, zinc and iron.”
Based on an analysis of the major government schemes which have components for social health management, the report points out that the government spent Rs 49,980 crore during 2009-10 for promoting chemical fertilisers. On the other hand, the amount spent on other flagship schemes that have components to promote ecological fertilisation is only Rs 5,374.72 crore, almost one tenth of the amount spent on chemical fertilisers.
But are benefits of subsidy on chemical fertilisers reaching the target group?
The survey showed that only 34 per cent of the farmers knew that the chemical fertilisers are subsidised. In any case, even at the subsidised rate, 94 per cent of the farmers said that chemical fertilisers were unaffordable and not economical. Of the farmers who are aware about susbsidy on chemical fertilisers, only 7 per cent knew that the government had introduced the Nutrient Based Subsidy System.
He pointed out that while crop contains about 30 elements only three can be purchased in the market nitrogeneous fertilisers such as urea and diammonium phosphate, phosphatic fertilisers as single super phosphate and Potassic fertilisers. These are not good enough for crop production because they potentially cause imbalance for those nutrients for which a crop depends on soil. It is not even cost effective for the farmer. For instance, a 50 kg bag of urea would cost Rs 300. One hectare land of most cereal crops would need 200 kg of urea that would translate to Rs 1200 per hectare. A more viable and sustainable alternative is soil mulching, a process where crop residue and tree loppings can be left intact on the field. It serves to take care of the micro organisms and macrofauna in the soil. It improves the soil fertility, soil temperature and saves the moisture from evaporating.
Dr Rupela recommends use of education, awareness and demonstration as tools to convince farmers to opt for mulching of plant biomass or eco-fertilisers in preference to chemical fertilisers that are playing havoc with the human, crop and soil health. “We advice soil mulching to farmers as a good practice in place of burning.”
He has been advocating this for years now. In 1996, he co-steered a Punjab Agricultural University study on burning of rice and wheat residues in Punjab. The research threw up findings that ought to have been an eye-opener. It drew attention to the loss incurred due to burning of rice and wheat straw. The report said that Punjab farmers burnt 12 million tonnes of rice and wheat straw in 1996. This generated 23 million tonnes of Carbon dioxide. The team argued that if this had not been burnt and had been converted to compost or surface mulch, it would have generated urea worth 18 million dollars at the 1996 prices and would have contributed all the 30 nutrients to the soil. In an article titled ‘Sustainablility implications of burning rice and wheat straw in Punjab’, that was published in the Economic and Political Weekly in September 1998, Dr Rupela and others said, “Crop residues are important components of soil fertility management but are burnt in some areas such as Punjab state. Not only does this mean a loss of nutrients but also caused environmental pollution (and the associated health effects); the production of substantial quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, can adversely affect the environment.”
Voicing concern over the flawed approach regarding crop yield, he said, “We should be worried about net profit of farmers, not high yield alone. Yield of farmers using eco-fertilisers is at least comparable to those using agro-chemicals. It is only after we have built the food security for the farmers, can we think of building the nation’s food security. It is a flawed approach to measure the yield of the crop per season. We should evaluate it per unit land per year. In our rush to be a food secure nation and to enhance crop yield, we adopted chemical fertilisers. Developing economies have yet to internalise these mistakes and start mid-course correction.”
By Tripti Nath