Govt talks of organic farming, but panders to fertiliser lobby

Govt talks of organic farming, but panders to fertiliser lobby

That is exactly what he said when quizzed about the same issue in parliament a day after the Union Budget was presented. If it is there, can we ask him where is it? And how far has it helped in addressing the issue of declining organic manure content in our farm soils?

The ‘Yes it is there, we are doing that also’ attitude is not new. The government has always been indifferent to the soil health issue, when it comes to formulation of policies and allocation of funds. The approach towards natural ecosystems like soil has always been exploitative, focused on chemical intensive methods of farming. Of late, there have been discussions about soil health crisis and threat to food security. But ultimately, political compulsions and industrial interests prevail.

A perusal of the answers given by the ministry in parliament over the last several sessions will give a clear indication of its position. The attempt has always been to keep the ecological/organic farming far away from the mainstream agriculture as a niche with a support worth a pittance.

However it is to be noted that organic biomass in large quantities are needed to rejuvenate the soils destroyed by chemical intensive agriculture practices. In rainfed regions, organic biomass addition is critical to improve the water holding capacity and overall health of the soil. This is vital for ensuring sustainable livelihoods in these regions.

Greenpeace India’s ‘Living Soils’ team which organised social audits on soil health and support systems in five states, hardly observed any government support for biomass generation and the promotion of ecological fertilisation. Only one per cent out of the 1,000 farmers surveyed had received any kind of support for ecological fertilisation. On the other hand, 98 per cent of the surveyed farmers were eager to adopt it provided there is support from the government. One might think that it is another implementation issue. Before making such a conclusion we have to look at the actual allocations.

While finance minister Pranab Mukherjee highlighted the issue of indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers leading to deterioration in soil health during his budget speech, the policies are promoting chemical fertilisers rather vigorously and the allocations are reaching insane proportions.

As per the revised estimates in the Union Budget, the total allocation for chemical fertiliser subsides in 2010-11 is Rs 54,976.68 crore. As per latest media reports, another Rs 8,000 crore was allocated, which will take the total subsidy amount for this fiscal to Rs 62,977 crore. This is 4.5 times higher than the total Central plan outlay for the three departments under ministry of agriculture (Rs 14,049 crore), in the same year as per the revised estimate. This disparity continues in the budget estimate for the next fiscal year as well.

This huge investment on chemical fertilisers is often lauded as a farmer-friendly measure. But is it really helping? In reality, this investment leads to further deterioration of the soil, pollutes the dwindling water resources and contributes to climate change, pushing farmers to desperation. The farmers are eager to come out of this vicious cycle, but with no support to alternatives, they are disempowered and helpless.

Miniscule support

An analysis of the allocation for major policies and schemes reveal that the so called support for ecological fertilisation is miniscule and scattered. The major schemes on soil health management and organic farming promotion are National Project on management of Soil Health and Fertility (NPMSF) and National Project on Organic Farming (NPOF) respectively. The total spending for these two programmes taken together as per the revised estimates for 2010-11 is only 35.85 crore. Again the allocation for NPMSF is not only for promotion of organic manures but also for soil testing facilities and fertiliser quality control labs, etc. So with this kind of a miniscule investment, how can the government reach out to the entire country?

The other flagship schemes which have got components for promotion of ecological fertilisation or organic farming include Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and National Horticultural Mission (NHM). The RKVY has 17 components and a perusal of the data for 28 states published by the ministry reveals that the government spent only 2.64 per cent of the total allocation for organic farming/ biofertiliser components during 2009-10.

Pranab Mukherjee’s promise to promote organic farming and green manuring under the yet to be launched National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) offers a ray of hope. But it is not clear how the promise will translate into action. If this programme, dedicated to sustainability has to deliver, then it should be rooted in ecological farming principles and should have sufficient allocation to promote all components of ecological fertilisation in mainstream agriculture to bring life back in the soils.

In the long term, policy makers should adopt a more holistic view towards agriculture. There is also a need to make participatory development effective in spirit and not in letter. This is possible only through proper institutional mechanism for small and marginal farmers and convergence of policies at the grassroots level. Sustainability should be the guiding principle while allocating funds and should not be guided by vested interests.
Regarding soil health, we should realise the gravity of the issue. We need to keep the soil alive and healthy for sustaining our food production. For this, we need to adopt a mission mode approach. There is no second option.