Saving soil health

The government’s nutrient-based subsidy has done more harm to the soil than good. Only sustainable agriculture can save the nutrient and water holding capacity of the soil.
Farmers thresh paddy during harvest at Sangrur, Punjab. (Source: Neil Palmer, CIAT, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)
Farmers thresh paddy during harvest at Sangrur, Punjab. (Source: Neil Palmer, CIAT, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

Bhanu is bracing herself for an income loss this year. The wheat she sowed after bajra in winter did not give her the productivity expected. Her soil health is declining, she says. To top it all, she is afraid there will be deficient rainfall this year in her village in Ferozepur Jhirka in Mewat in Haryana. A semi-arid water scarce region with very low annual rainfall of about 300-550 mm, increasing the productivity of crops in her land looks bleak this year.

Her patch of land lies in the foothills of the Aravalli range. She is lucky that she gets fresh water from the borewell in a locality affected by groundwater salinity. The soil in her farm is light in texture, mostly sandy loam. She has another patch of land in the upper hills and has kept it mostly barren barring a few trees. Being close to the hillocks, she keeps a few goats and sheep to supplement her income.  

A lot of people in her area are growing cash crops like onion, tomato, carrot and brinjal but the quality of soil in her farm does not permit this. She had even gotten her soil tested in 2010. The results say it is deficient in phosphorus. That is the case with many farms in the area. Most of them are poor in water and nutrient retention.

Hussain, another farmer in the neighbouring Nuh block has about 10 acres of saline land in which he had applied gypsum two years back as per scientific prescriptions to reduce the salinity. He is mainly dependent on agriculture for a living and is anxious these days about lesser price realisation of the produce. Hussain says the main problem he faces these days is of low organic soil carbon on his farm.

The tales of the soil

Unlike Bhanu and Hussain who own tubewells, many farmers have lands here that are rainfed. Haryana is known for its irrigation infrastructure but a fifth of its total cultivable area is drylands. These areas include Mewat district in south-western part and Shivalik in the north-eastern region of the state.

Hussain has been able to deal with soil salinity but increasing organic carbon in his land has been a daunting one. Usually organic carbon content is an indicator of soil health and fertility; in Hussain’s farm, the cultivation practice has been destroying the organic matter in the soil. The repetitive tillage and the burning of crop residues have reduced the organic biomass. The soil structure has got damaged as there are not enough organisms to decompose the soil organic matter and bind the soil particles. As a result, the topsoil gets washed away in the rain. Scientists from Krishi Vigyan Kendra advised him to go for fallow (rest between crops) but the demand for land is such that Hussain cannot afford this.

Bhanu and Hussain’s farms face two typical soil health problems of Mewat farmers—low phosphorus and organic content. The comprehensive district agriculture plan for Mewat also advises this. A working group report on rainfed area development in Haryana, 2014 suggests that the farmers be encouraged through proper incentives to use organic manures, biofertilisers, alternate sources of energy and plantation of multipurpose trees and follow good agricultural practices and organic farming to improve organic carbon content in their soil.

But market pressure is such that both Bhanu and Hussain have replaced indigenous varieties with high-yielding ones long back. “These often produce more grain and less straw compared with local varieties. As a result, enough crop residues are not available after harvest for soil cover and to improve the organic matter. And whatever little residue is there gets used as animal feed,” says Bhanu.

Hussain makes an interesting observation. Like most people in the area, he too began using fertiliser and pesticides copiously over a decade back. This improved his crop leading to more biomass production. But, because he was using an excessive dosage of urea (which has nitrogen), the organic matter in his soil decomposed faster. This point gets a mention in a research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation that specifies the use of some fertilisers like nitrogenous fertilisers and pesticides which can boost micro-organism activity and decomposition of organic matter.

“Depletion of soil organic matter is a major reason for degradation of soil health. It not only reduces the water holding capacity of the soil but also affects the natural processes that contribute to the uptake of available nitrogen to the plants,” says Ajay Bhan Singh, programme manager and lead communications & MIS at Hindustan Unilever Foundation, Mumbai.

Yet Hussain continued with over fertilisation of his farm. “Scientists have been advising us to change our tillage practices to no-till or minimum till. In fact, they say that the more a soil is tilled, the more the organic matter is broken down. They always tell me that old root channels and earthworm holes need to be maintained. But, how will I handle the increase in weeds?” asks Hussain. “I am continuing to use the moldboard plough as a part of conventional tillage,” he adds.

Nutrient-based subsidies to improve soil

The prices of fertilisers started pinching farmers like Bhanu and Hussain post-2010. In 2010, the Government of India brought in the nutrient-based subsidy scheme in response to the huge subsidy burden the government incurred on fertilisers. To reduce the fiscal burden, the government thought it fit to deregulate the subsidy on phosphatic and potassic fertilisers.

This model did not work as farmers like Bhanu responded by applying more urea as a substitute for diammonium phosphate. Bhanu laments, “The prices of phosphatic fertilisers like diammonium phosphate rose sharply during 2011 to 2013 making it unaffordable for farmers like me to apply it in required amounts.” The prices of phosphatic and potassic fertilisers went up from an average of Rs 10,000 per metric tonne (mt) to Rs 25,000 per mt in 2013, followed by a brief decline due to the fall in input prices internationally and an incline thereafter. It stands at Rs 36000 per mt as of the end of 2016.

Increased use of cheaper urea damages soil

Keeping urea, a nitrogenous fertiliser out of the ambit of the nutrient-based subsidy scheme defeated its very purpose of using nutrients in right amounts. This, in fact, led to worsening of the soil nutrient quality. So, most farmers like Bhanu ended up using more urea because it was cheaper than phosphatic and potassic fertilisers. As per a report appeared in the newspaper, on an average, farmers apply double the amount of urea compared with the recommendations, and in some states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, 10-15 times more than the requirement. Even the Economic Survey of India, 2014 states that the indiscriminate use of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium has led to the imbalanced use of soil nutrients, especially in Haryana and Punjab, leading to deterioration in soil quality and declining growth in land productivity in these states.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report of May 2015 too slammed the government’s nutrient-based subsidy policy as it “has failed to promote a balanced use of fertilisers and growth of indigenous industry”.

“Our farmers know that they are not getting good productivity in spite of applying a very high dosage of commercial fertilisers which cause environmental problems. But many of them do not know that applying a high dosage of inappropriate fertiliser spoils their soil health,” says Prof. R. Sakthivadivel, Emeritus Professor at Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, Chennai.

“Depletion of soil organic matter has resulted in the application of higher and higher dosage of chemical fertiliser in the soil. Fertilisers are a major contributor to input cost in farming amounting to as high as 40 percent of the total input cost. Additionally, the negative impact of using an irrational dosage of chemical fertiliser compounds the problems and hence there is a need to reverse this. The efforts taken up by Hussain are a positive step towards sustainable agriculture,” says Singh.

What can the farmers do in this situation? “They can move towards sustainable agriculture. Unlike intensive farming, it will not give rise to environmental problems like water contamination or rise in greenhouse gases,” he adds. This balance between agricultural productivity and healthy soil conditions and environmental conditions is something even Hussain is looking forward to. He has finally decided to do composting, crop rotation and use cover crops or green manure crops. These small steps will surely lead to the more rational use of fertilisers in farming.

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