Soil health and fertility is the basis for the sustainable profitability of the farmers. Using optimal doses of fertilizers and cropping pattern as per the scientific recommendation is the first step in sustainable farming. Soil testing is a science based and time-tested tool for assessment of soil fertility status and soil ailments and for nutrient and amendment recommendations. In the country, the current consumption of fertlizers is highly skewed to more nitrogen use and less use of micro-nutrients. The current N:P:K ratio is 7:2:1, against the recommended ratio of 4:2:1. India is spending nearly Seventy thousand crore rupees on fertilizer subsidy every year. According to the estimates, subsidy amount is about Rs.5000/ha of net cropped area and about Rs.5100/farmer. Taking this into consideration, the government of India introduced Soil Health Card Scheme across India.
On 5th December 2015 the ministry of agriculture introduced SHC scheme. SHC will be provided to all farmers in the country at an interval of 2 years. Under SHC scheme, cropped area was divided in to grids of 10 ha for rainfed and 2.5 ha for irrigated. One soil sample from each grid will be taken and test results will be distributed to all the farmers whose land is falling under the grid. Based on the grid system, out of the total 14.1 crore hectare of net cropped area, 73 lakh grid samples to be collected for covering 7.3 crore ha area under rainfed situations. To cover 6.8 crore ha irrigated land, 2.7 crore grid samples to be collected, with a total of 3.46 crore grid samples in two years. 1.72 crore grid samples per year needs to be covered in the country. This comes to on average of 25000 grid samples per district/year or 29 grid samples per village/year. With this, all 14 crore farmers will be covered in two years. Every year 7 crore farmers need to be covered. Until now under the scheme, 2.71 crore samples were collected, 2.05 crore samples tested, 11 crore soil health cards printed, but only 5.66 crore SHCs distributed. It indicates that 78% of the total farmers are covered but only 40% received SHCs under the scheme at national level as on 17th March 2017.
Preliminary reports on the scheme shows that there is some reduction in fertilizer use, especially Nitrogen and increase in bio-fertilizers and other micro-nutrients use. Costs were reduced due to low fertilizer use. Crop yields have also increased for majority of the crops, although only moderately. A significant impact is the increase in the use of gypsum and other micro nutrients to some extent. There is a need for strengthening the soil health card related extension services to provide better advisories. Main complaint from the farmers is the timeliness of providing the results. This, however, is linked to the less infrastructure (soil testing labs) and skilled manpower. The financial allocation under union budget is minimal. Even the allocated resources are not being spent or utilized due to lack of capacities. Proactive regions like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat seem to be better in implementation.
Suggestions to improve SHC desig
The existing uniform grid of 10 ha for dry lands and 2.5 ha for irrigated lands is not taking in to consideration local soil variability. Grid size should be variable based on the soil variability index. Grid size should be decided at least at block level based on soil heterogeneity, fertility maps, cropping pattern, irrigation facilities and remote sensing maps. If soil is more variable, grid size should be reduced and vice-versa. There should be a separate cell to monitor and recommend grid size across the country. It will also reduce cost, money, and manpower and increase relevance of recommendations to farmers. Coordination of agricultural extension officers and farmers needs to be enhanced and extension officers should make sure that the most of the grid farmers, if not all should be present at the time of soil sample collection. This will build confidence on the soil health cards by the farmers. It was observed that in some of the block agricultural offices, soil samples were kept aside for many days and those were exposed to moisture and weather. After soil sampling, drying should be done within 15-20 days, grinding, machine sieving and bottling should be done in time for proper test results. Sample test results should reach farmers before sowing season. Some additional indicators which needs to be included in SHC were (i) cropping history, (ii) water resources (soil moisture), (iii) slope of soil and (iv) depth of soil.
Soil Testing Infrastructure
About 1600 labs exist in India, of which only 700 are equipped with micro-nutrient testing facilities. This infrastructure is grossly inadequate by any standard, given that 14 crore farmers need to be covered. Strengthening and upgrading at least one soil testing lab per district as state-of-the-art lab should be the priority, this should be equipped with world class infrastructure and accredited by internationally recognized agencies. So nearly 700 state-of-the-art labs are needed to act as referral labs and also to give broad advice to farmers. The cost per unit will be about Rs.4-5 crore/unit, with a total of Rs. 2800 crores. However, this resulted in Rs.1000/ha savings in fertilizer use or increase in yields resulted in a saving of Rs. 14, 500 crores in a year to the economy. Soil testing is a specialized and highly skill oriented job. Frequent transfers of soil testing staff adversely affect the skill development within labs and test results will affect badly. There was a need to build some permanent staff in the labs who are interested and specialized in soil testing. Field observations indicate that only women officers are interested in working with soil testing labs.
In many villages, agricultural officers are distributing SHCs in awareness campaigns through village presidents and Mandal/block democratically elected representatives. But in some villages, village revenue assistant is distributing SHC and taking signature, without explaining the content. Whenever SHC is distributed in awareness campaigns and meetings directly by agricultural extension officers/village president, number of farmers feel that they are convinced to use recommended practices. Development of GIS based soil fertility maps at village/block level and wider publicity through wall-posters and display boards in village panchayats should be promoted.
If the SHC programme needs to become successful the high fertilizer subsidy for Urea should be reduced. Prices should reflect true cost to economy, then only farmers will have incentives to use fertilizers judiciously as per the recommendation of the SHC. On the contrary, subsidy on micro-nutrients should be increased.
(The author is the Director of National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE) and Principal Scientist (Agricultural Economics) ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute)
Dr. A. Amarender Reddy