ANALYSIS: In February this year, Prime MinisterNarendra Modi launched an ambitious Rs568 crore Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme. The objective of the three-year scheme is to issue soil health cards to 14 crore farmers spread across India.
The cards will be given out after determining the quality of soil, identifying its macro- and micronutrients as well as its acidic level and organic content.
On the basis of these determinants, farmers are expected to receive guidance on the fertilisers to use and the soil amendments to make in order to improve the quality of soil on their farms.
The loopholes in the scheme, however, appear to have been altogether missed or ignored by agricultural experts.
Consider this: the basic parameters of the grid system of soil sampling in which the scheme is grounded is a controversial and flawed method.
Under this system, only one soil sample is taken from an area of 10 hectares in rain-fed land, and 2.5 hectares in irrigated land.
The critics of the scheme argue that this sort of over-generalisation of soil and ignoring its diverse characteristics are going to be of little help to farmers for improving their land productivity.
In India, the average landholding per farmer varies between 0.8 hectares and 1.1 hectares. So, soil testing in rain-fed land would entail marking out an area of 10 hectares involving 10 to 15 farmers.
From among these farmers, soil samples would be taken from just one land. The findings of the soil testing from this particular land would then be made applicable to the lands belonging to all other farmers who fall within that particular grid.
Similar logistics would be applied in sampling irrigated land soil as well.
The grid system of soil testing goes against the very logic of fertility of agricultural land which is contingent upon varied factors: the type and number of crops, differences in landholdings and the inputs made by farmers as well as their financial status.
To go back to the history of the scheme, the idea of grid soil mapping happens to be the brainchild of India’s top research body, Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).
ICAR’s assistant director general, Dr SK Chaudhari, who was closely involved in developing the scheme, says: “What is recommended is based on scientific calculations. If you see villages in India, mostly one or two crops are grown and there is a uniform crop pattern. You would hardly find farmers growing variant or different crops, fearing that his crop will be stolen or consumed by cattle.”
But many other top soil scientists in the country working in research institutions and state agricultural universities differ with Chaudhari’s analysis. Most of the scientists I spoke with described the exercise as scientifically “useless” for farmers.
It may help governments in political mapping but won’t serve any real purpose for farmers, they said. Citing their official positions, the scientists, however, wanted to remain anonymous in giving their comments.
Ironically, only the retired soil scientists agreed to come on record with their criticism of the project. Dr J Venkateswarlu, a noted soil scientist, who retired as director of Central Arid Zone Research Institute, said: “Mere chemical analysis for N (organic carbon), P, K, and micronutrients only indicate their availability without reflecting on the soil fertility. It does not tell us about soil productivity that includes soil-water relationships, management systems, etc.”
Here then is the question we need to ask: how tough would it really have been for the government to go for soil testing for individual farms?
Simple calculations reveal that with this approach, the government would have had to cough up Rs2660 crore, given the existing cost computation of paying Rs190 per soil sample.
Besides, given the existing infrastructure that include just 1206 soil testing laboratories in the country with an analysing capacity of around 128 lakh soil samples per annum, it would have taken the government over 10 years to complete the project.
After getting the view of the government as well as the scientific community, I decided to find out the farmers’ perspective about the scheme. I visited several villages in Uttar Pradesh and here’s what farmers told me: Yogendra Kumar, a farmer for the last 21 years in the Shamli district, said: “How can I accept a soil health report when the soil from my farm is not tested.
“My neighbour uses lots of chemicals in sugarcane. I don’t. This is absurd! Rather than doing this shoddy work, it’s better if the government doesn’t give a card.”
Similarly, Karamvir Singh of Kaserwi Kala village said, “If you take the example of sugarcane, the yields vary from 300 to 1300 per quintal even in small areas of 10 hectares. So how can you recommend the same fertilisers for every farm? If this is the science, the government should keep it with them.”
Even as the agriculture ministry claims that SHC parameters were decided after due consultations with state governments, Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission member Sudhir Panwar seems to have serious differences with the central government.
Panwar, also a professor at Lucknow University, said the proposed limit of 10 hectares for soil health card would not serve any useful objective. In order to be effective, the test, Panwar maintained, needs to take into account the specific variations that are observed at the field level.
There is no one method of treating the soil that is applicable to all farmers. The basic soil quality varies depending on the crop cycle, different soil treatments that affect the micronutrients and the micro-fauna/flora.
The fact is that Soil Health Cards is not a new scheme. Soil testing has been going on in India for over a decade. It was initiated during the UPA regime. The difference is that under the UPA, state governments were given partial financial support for soil testing.
Now the scheme is wholly sponsored by the Centre. Most importantly, a comparison of the schemes of the UPA and NDA regimes reveals that unlike the NDA’s grid system, soil testing under the UPA was carried out for each farmer and each field.
It is indeed ironic that at a time of agricultural crisis and increasing farmer suicides, the government has refurbished an old scheme, only to make it less effective. Even if farmers are forced to accept Soil Health Cards, they are unlikely to get any proper analytical feedback on their land. – From DNA