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Fertiliser subsidy : A curse of Green Revolution and paradox of farmers welfare

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The author is an environmentalist and has been working in field of rain water harvesting, water conservation, forestation and afforestation. You can reach out to him on his e-mail [email protected]

As we approach budget 2021-22, the grapevine is that Govt is contemplating increase in fertiliser subsidy allocation and may also give other freebies to farmers to make up for lost political ground due to farm bill protests. Last year the allocation for fertiliser subsidy was Rs 71,309 crore in budget 2020-21 which was followed by additional subsidy of Rs 65,000-crore announced in Nov 2020 as part of stimulus package to boost the economy. The magnitude of this allocation can be gauged by the fact that in same amount another Kaleshwaram Dam could be built (which is designed to irrigate 45 lakh acres for 2 crops/year, meet the drinking water requirement of 70% of Telengana and also meet needs of the industry).

The Genesis

Application of chemical fertilisers gained momentum with advent of the Green Revolution in 1960-70s. Prior to this, these were not much in vogue and were mostly used in plantations or cash crops. New improved (hybrid) seeds and chemical fertilisers boosted the production leading to self sufficiency of food grains in the country and of course success of Green revolution. To keep up the production of food grains, the Government started providing subsidy to the fertiliser companies so that farmers can afford the quantity as required by them.

Alarming increase in use of chemical fertilisers 

The usage of chemical fertilisers has been increasing steadily.  In 1977, NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash) fertiliser consumption was 4.30 million metric tonnes (mmt) with per hectare usage of 24.9 kg. Over the period of time, its use increased manifold (more than 5 times) and by 2019, consumption was 27.30 mmt with per hectare usage of 137.6 kg. Although the increased use of fertilisers resulted in increased production but the gains are actually not worth it for any stakeholder of the agriculture in the long run.

Govt’s Perspective

Increased food grains production was essential for food security of the country; however we already have crossed the threshold long ago and presently have almost twice as surplus. Since the requirement of food grains is going to double by year 2050 from current levels and hence many advocate that the fertiliser subsidies should continue. No Govt is likely to change the present system as it is an established practice all over the world and this also secures a large vote bank for them.

Are we expediting desertification by subsidies?

We need to ponder if our soil health can sustain till 2050? or will it turn desert like much before that. Aren’t we expediting the desertification of our fertile lands by provisioning highly subsidised fertilisers?

Well, one need not be a scientist to know the importance of biomass for the quality of soil health. Even a household gardener will tell you to add compost, manure, coco peat etc to soil for better plants. The reason is simple – these things allow the soil to maintain moisture, allow micro organisms, earthworms, bacteria, fungi etc to flourish. Equally important is giving recuperating to time to soil between crop cycles. However, we have long moved away from our traditional practices and there is rampant overuse of fertilisers especially that of Urea.

Total dependence on chemicals is continuously making our soils lifeless and as result more and more of it is required every following year. I will amplify this; the crop to fertiliser ratio in 1970 was ‘13 kg grains/kg fertiliser’ which became ‘3.7 kg grains/kg fertiliser in 2005’. We need to see the red at least now.

Environmental dangers

The rampant use of Urea has very serious and irreversible effects on the environment. Water contamination and air pollution are two most serious fallouts of this. Due to low nitrogen conversion efficiency of the soil, the bulk of the urea applied contaminates surface and ground water (Nitrate contamination). This contamination is already visible in Punjab and Haryana and situation will only worsen from here. The effect on soil is that it increases its acidity and makes it lifeless.

What happened to zero budget natural farming?

The Govt in budget 2019-20, stressed the use of such farming methods that shun the use of chemicals and involve zero expenditure. Finance Minister mentioned how ZBNF will double farmers’ income by going “back to basics”. Prime Minister also spoke about it while addressing the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. But the budget allocation for the promotion of this farming method remained meagre and as of now nobody in the Govt is talking about it. We may well assume that this concept has met its fate.

Way ahead

At some stage the Govt will have to take this unpleasant decision of discouraging the use of chemical fertilisers. Reduction of dependence on chemical fertilisers will have to be resorted to by promoting our traditional practices to improve and maintain soil health. In fact, the situation is perfect at present due to following reasons;-

  • – Our production is far more than required, so there are no fears even if production drops.
  • – Lack of storage facilities with Govt.
  • – Price of our grains is not competitive in international market.

We need to promote sustainable agricultural practices and gradually move away from water guzzling and high fertiliser consuming crops. Agro-forestry, horticulture, pulses and millets must be encouraged.

Be ready for ‘Namami Dharti’ by 2040

If we continue to promote rampant use of chemical fertilisers, the day is not very far when we will hear the Govt announce a new project for conservation of the soil – called Namami Dharti, may be. This self inflicted injury to all stakeholders is avoidable.

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The author is an environmentalist and has been working in field of rain water harvesting, water conservation, forestation and afforestation. You can reach out to him on his e-mail [email protected]
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