The ruling NDA at the Centre has set for itself a difficult target — to double the income of farmers by 2022. And it wants to do so by avoiding the earlier policy of simply throwing money at agriculture schemes. That flawed approach turned State agriculture departments into sinkholes of government funds. Assam too has been no exception; rather, in this agrarian State, its Agriculture department’s workings have been often marked by officials waiting eagerly for ‘schemes’ to skim off funds. As for raising support prices of various crops, the Central government finds itself in a no-win situation as prices of crop after crop keep fluctuating wildly due to weather and market forces. So the thrust is to reduce the cost of cultivation through various interventions. A core component of this approach is to help the farmer really know what his soil needs. Normally, this should have been left to traditiol knowledge of every farming community, whose forefathers have been tilling the land for centuries. But as part of modern cultivation methods, farmers across the country have been using fertilisers in increasing quantities, which in turn has changed the nutrient profile of the soil in their lands. The problem is mostly a loss of balance in primary, secondary and micro nutrients in the soil. To address this, specific knowledge is required which the farmer lacks. The major fertilisers help add primary nutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to the soil. Due to blanket use of such NPK fertilisers, the need for secondary and micro nutrients is generally overlooked. Even among primary NPK fertilisers, it is nitrogenous urea that is used mostly by farmers because the government subsidises it, rather than phosphorous and potassium fertilizers whose prices are not regulated. In States like Punjab, Harya and Rajasthan which have benefited from the green revolution, farmers have added urea to their land 10-15 times more than what was required.
Nurturing soil health
So when Prime Minister rendra Modi launched the Soil Health Card mission in February 2015 at Gangagar, Rajasthan, he exhorted farmers thus: “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 this context, he spoke about farmers in his home State Gujarat maging to cut down unnecessary inputs, because they have equipped themselves with soil health cards. These cards carry information about soil ture and nutrients present, fertilizers required and recommendations of crops that can be grown in maximum yield. Through such scientific method, the farmer can know exactly what fertiliser he needs, which not only saves him money but also helps preserve the health of soil. Surely, such soil health cards can be invaluable to the farmer in Assam, for he would know exactly what nutrients to add if his soil is acidic, alkaline or deficient in other ways. But as in many other ways in which farmers in this State have to pull on without meaningful government help or are actually defrauded by corrupt officials, soil health card too has been added to their list of deprivations. The first cycle of Soil Health Card scheme ran for two years in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Assam was given the target to distribute 15,40,968 cards among farmers, but only 1,56,398 cards were handed out. The Agriculture department collected 2,78,707 soil samples, but could test barely over one-fourth that number. And in the ongoing second cycle, the Agriculture department has not even tested a single soil sample of the targeted 1.39 lakh plus soil samples. No wonder Assam has consistently figured among laggard States in implementing this scheme. And the reasons are not far to seek. It is reliably learnt that 8 of the 11 soil testing labs in the State are defunct. Around one-third posts of village-level extension workers who should be collecting soil samples are lying vacant; the manpower crunch is worse for agriculture development officers with 90 percent such posts remaining unfilled. Many officials manning such posts are learnt to be engaged in NRC update exercise, which shows where the priorities of the Agriculture department lies. It is a moot question when Dispur will get around to appointing scientists and technicians in required numbers to these labs and provide them with necessary infrastructure. The State government reportedly has a plan to increase the number of such labs to 26, but going by the ture of things, the second cycle of Soil Health Card scheme may likely be over. Apart from releasing its share for the scheme and ensuring timely and proper submission of utilisation certificates, Dispur has to push hard in spreading awareness among farmers about the scheme. The tragedy of agricultural research and extension services failing to bridge the gap between laboratory and cropfield — must end if the State has to march on the road of higher agricultural productivity.