The Green Revolution, probably the greatest achievement of post-independence India, heralded an era of food sufficiency riding on the use of chemical fertilisers. Now, 50 years on, soil health is rapidly declining. There is ample evidence to show that indiscriminate use of fertilisersis the major cause of deteriorating soil health. Indian farmers apply around 66 million tonnes of fertilisers every year, which accounts for a significant share of India’s imports and subsidies.
The government, seems determined to promote more judicious use of fertilisers.
The Prime Minister launched a nation-wide “Soil Health Card” (SHC) scheme in early 2015 to rejuvenate India’s exhausted soil. Using a grid-wise approach, representative soil samples from the fields are tested for nutrient content in designated chemical laboratories.
How SHC works
Accordingly, macro and micro nutrients needed by the soil are identified and translated into specific, measured quantities of fertilisers required. This information, printed on the SHC, is made available to the farmers in that grid through the state agricultural departments. Thirty million SHCs were issued in 2015-16 and the Ministry of Agriculture aims to cover the entire farming population by 2018-19. In addition, on a pilot basis, the soil health information is made available at fertiliser purchase points —Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS) and POS devices-enabled fertiliser retail shops. However, farmers still buy large amount of fertiliser, disregarding SHC recommendations.
MicroSave recently conducted a study into farming practices in two paddy-producing districts of Andhra Pradesh (West Godavari and Krishna) and elicited farmers’ views on fertilisers, soil health and SHCs. Though our findings relate to a select sample in a specific region, they are indicative of attitudes and practices of kharif paddy farmers across the country.
Farmers appear convinced that there is a perfect causal correlation between high fertiliser usage and more output. As a corollary, they believe their farmlands have ‘good soil health’ if they yield the desired output. Farmers are not concerned that they need not use increasing amount of fertiliser to ensure this ‘good soil health’! In fact, they are not sure that the advice based on the SHC can be relied upon; especially when they perceive that the yield might improve by using ‘just a little more’ fertiliser.
SHCs are not easy to use—they give general recommendations regarding the quantity of fertilisers required over the entire crop season whereas, in reality, fertilisers should be used in varying amounts over the different stages of the crop growth. So, even those farmers who start with the intention to use less fertiliser as a result of the SHCs ultimately have to fall back on their own judgement to decide on the amount of fertiliser to be used at each stage of the cropping cycle.
For present income flows
If crop growth appears to be below normal at the middle of the season, the farmer will usually apply large amounts of fertiliser. For farmers who have already bought bags of fertilisers, it is a sunk cost and so the prudent course of action is to apply more – even if the government’s SHC suggests otherwise. Maximising yield and fear of loss are the salient concerns.
The government has started to provide recommendations on the SHC as per the crops sown. But more needs to be done. The farmers need SHC recommendations tailored according to crop growth stages. Promotional campaigns must deconstruct the myth of “more fertilisers” as a panacea for better yields.
Soil health must be positioned as crucial to the long-term productivity of land, which will be irredeemably lost if the focus is only on present income flows.
A behavioural approach based on understanding farmers’ realities needs to be used. Many farmers are share-croppers seeking to maximise short-term yields with little care or concern for the long-term health of the soil. Others, who own their land, do not expect their children to farm and “live off the land”. So they aim to maximise short-term yields to finance the education seen as the passport to a job and freedom from the toil of farming.
It is essential that the government executes this initiative with attention to detail. The SHC scheme can go a long way in ensuring long-term food security of over 1.25 billion Indians.