New Delhi: The government’s flagship scheme to correct the imbalance in fertiliser use and reduce costs of cultivation by providing all farmers with a soil health card is moving at a slow pace as states drag their feet.
According to a background note prepared by the agriculture ministry and distributed among state officials who visited Delhi last week to attend the National Rabi or winter crop conference, so far, less than a fifth of the targeted farmers have received soil health cards (SHC), following collection of samples from their fields and testing at labs.
The centre’s target is to distribute 140 million cards to as many farmers by March 2017, after collecting and testing 25.3 million soil samples. So far, while nearly 79% of the targeted soil samples have been collected, only about 40% have been tested and just 19% of farmers received cards.
According to data from the agriculture ministry, states like Assam, Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh are slow in collecting soil samples. Further, 15 states have achieved only between 20-50% of their soil testing targets which include major ones like Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, while 23 states have distributed less than 30% of the targeted soil health cards.
Coming down heavily on the states at the Rabi conference on Thursday, agriculture secretary S.K. Pattanayak said, “I don’t want to point fingers, but states should gear up to finish their agreed targets by March next year. Many like Assam, Bihar, Rajasthan, Orissa and Punjab have not been able to complete testing of samples so far.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious soil health card mission in February last year at Ganganagar, Rajasthan, and told a gathering of farmers that “applying fertilizer, best quality seeds and ample water is not enough. Farmers should nurture their soil and know what inputs to use and in what quantities.”
“In Gujarat, where every farmer has a soil health card, unnecessary expenses on inputs have come down and farmers have saved a lot of money,” he added.
So far, the Centre has spent Rs 216.4 crore on the scheme and sanctioned setting up of 449 new soil testing labs and strengthening existing ones. However, according to agriculture ministry data, only Himachal Pradesh and Nagaland have set up seven new labs together utilising funds from the ministry.
“The Centre’s attempt to correct imbalanced fertiliser use is unlikely to yield results till it does not touch the subsidy issue,” said Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
“It’s like advising not to consume alcohol while providing it for free. Even if targets of the soil health card scheme are met, farmers will overuse urea as it is heavily subsidised and is the cheapest in the world,” Gulati said.
“There is no substitute but to correct the signal on the pricing front, and alternatively, the Centre can move to direct cash transfers where the farmer can decide how to use the transferred subsidy,” he added.
Indian farmers tend to overuse urea as it is cheaper and highly subsidized compared with other macronutrients such as phosphorous and potassium fertilizers, prices of which are not regulated. For instance, on 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.
The result is a declining response of crops to fertilizer use; the amount of foodgrain produced per kg of fertilizer applied declined from around 13kg in the 1970s to less than 4kg by 2010, according to data from the fertilizer ministry.
The Centre is promoting the soil health card scheme as a key intervention to reduce cost of cultivation, moving away from augmenting farm incomes by raising crop support prices.