Nutrient-based subsidy regime

How many understand technical aspects of agro-chemical usage?

bhavdeepkang

Bhavdeep Kang | February 19, 2010



The central government has announced a long-overdue paradigm shift in fertilizer policy, opting for a need-based approach to agro-chemicals. So far, carpet-bombing has been the norm, resulting in tremendous wastage and soil degradation. On the face of it, this is a step in the right direction – but it is only a half-step.

In brief, apart from hiking the price of urea, the policy envisages subsidies based on the nutrient content of fertilizers, rather than on the fertilizer per se. There are three primary nutrients (N-P-K or nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium), three secondary ones (calcium, magnesium, sulphur) and eleven commonly used micro-nutrients.

Given the ground realities, implementing the new policy represents a big challenge for the agricultural extension. Also, its success hinges on the subsidy calculation mechanism, which has not been worked out.

But the biggest flaw is that agriculture is missing from the whole exercise.

The new fertilizer regime appears to have been motivated by purely economic compulsions, rather than the needs of Indian agriculture. Trimming the fertilizer subsidy from Rs 100,000 crore to a more manageable Rs 49,000 crore is definitely desirable. Reformists will rightly sing paeans to the Finance Minister, to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks, as multi-national vendors of plant nutrients toast the prospect of higher sales.

But where does it leave the farmer?

For more than half a century, the words “NPK” have been drilled into farmers’ by the agricultural extension. The Green Revolution was based to a large extent on water guzzling agro-chemicals. Even so, scientific application of NPK, based on soil analysis, is not a feature of Indian agriculture. The same applies to secondary nutrients and even more, to micro-nutrients. Currently, the bandwidth to conduct soil analyses on the scale that would be required for need-based application of plant nutrients does not exist.

Take Integrated Pest Management (IPM), for instance. The purpose of IPM was to reduce use of pesticides so as to avoid pest resistance and environmental pollution. After half a century, farmers still have not got the hang of it. Indiscriminate spraying has resulted in proliferation of pests and contamination of soil, water and the food chain.

The technical aspects of agro-chemical usage are neither understood nor followed. To effectively implement a nutrient-based regime, the agricultural extension will have to broaden and deepen its interface with farmers. A strong focus on micro-nutrients is particularly important. Low rainfall in many parts of India has resulted in reduced soil moisture, which in turn leads to poor uptake of micro-nutrients by plants. But this cannot be done in an ad hoc manner – sandy soil may need Zinc; certain horticultural crops may need Boron.

The “farmer-friendly” cafeteria approach to fertilizers mooted in the new policy can work only with intensive education of farmers and monitoring of farm operations. In the current scenario, that’s a tall order.

The Finance minister would also have done well to have simultaneously proposed a shift in subsidy, towards bio-fertilizers. The increased cost of chemical inputs would certainly force many farmers to search for alternatives. Bio-inputs represent an environmentally safe and in the long run, cheaper, alternative to agro-chemicals. Unlike the latter, which must be applied in larger doses every year with massive amounts of water, bio-inputs are applied in steadily diminishing quantities and also lower irrigation needs.

In fact, intensive use of organic manures would substantially reduce and eventually eliminate the need for agro-chemicals, including micro-nutrients. Appropriate crop selection and crop rotation would further enhance the process. The farmer would benefit through much lower costs of production and reduced vulnerability to global petrochemical prices.

Increased cost of fertilizers is bound to have a cascading effect. Farmers will now demand a hike in minimum support prices (MSP) across the board, starting with the kharif season. This would naturally mean an inflated food subsidy bill, particularly with the National Food Security Bill in the pipeline. While the fertilizer subsidy bill may have been trimmed, other subsidies may go up! Incidentally, the 10 percent hike in the price of urea could well have been delayed, to avoid hoarding.

Reduced dependence on fertilizer imports must also figure in the central government’s scheme of things. It would perhaps have been better to have done the groundwork by enhancing manufacturing capacity, prepping the agricultural extension and ensuring availability of bio-inputs before announcing the scheme.

 

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