UPSC IAS Interview 2017-18

Nutrient Management – A Challenging Task Ahead

by - Dr Mangala Rai, Secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE), & Director General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)

Fertilizer is the mainstay of food production in the country; hence its judicious use is the need of the hour. The integrated nutrient management is a panacea for sound soil health, higher farm productivity and profitability. Accordingly, our Government has taken historical decisions on nutrient-based pricing and subsidy, meeting additional cost of fortification/ coating of fertilizers, payment of freight subsidy for all fertilizers on actual basis and revival of single super phosphate industry. Simultaneously, to ensure adequate supply of fertilizers, the fertilizer industry needs to be cajoled from the continued stagnation due to low level of investment.

To reduce dependence on import of fertilizers, the indigenously available nutrient sources like low grade rock phosphate, waste mica and phosphogypsum need to be promoted as a source of phosphorus, potassium and sulphur, respectively. At the same time, there should be adequate provision for setting up of compost and bio-fertilizer units in rural and urban areas. The soil testing service requires to be strengthened for precise and efficient fertilizer use.

Fertilizers have played a stellar role in improving crop productivity and production and would continue to do so in future as well. However, presently there is a growing concern about the low use efficiency of nutrients which range from 2 to 50%. Such a low efficiency increases the cost of production and leads to severe environmental consequences. It is estimated that just by raising the nutrient-use efficiency by 10%, the country can save almost 20 million ha of land at the current level of productivity.

The impaired soil health and the declined productive potential is primarily due to imbalanced fertilizer use coupled with low use of organic manures. The soils are not being adequately replenished even with the macro-nutrients, let alone secondary and micro-nutrients. The improper nutrient management has, therefore, led to multi-nutrient deficiencies in Indian soils. The deficiencies range from 3% of copper to 89% of nitrogen with other elements falling in the range. The deficiencies are becoming more critical for sulphur, zinc and boron. About 47 million ha in major cropping systems are deficient in sulphur. The zinc deficiency is rampant in alluvial soils of Indo-Gangetic plain, black soils of Deccan Plateau and red and other associated soils. The boron deficiencies are showing up in red, lateritic and calcareous soils of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. The limiting nutrients by not allowing the full expression of other nutrients, lower fertilizer responses and crop productivity.

The site-specific integrated nutrient management encompassing conjunctive use of inorganic and organic fertilizers is the most ideal system for maintaining soil health and enhancing nutrient-use efficiency. The country will require about 45 MT of nutrients to produce 300 MT of foodgrains by 2025. Therefore, the fertilizer industry has to augment fertilizer production substantially from the present level of about 22 million tonnes of nutrients to keep pace with the growing food demands of the country. At the same time, the Government should have adequate provisions for setting up of units of compost and biofertilizers in rural and urban areas of the country.

There is near stagnation in capacity and investment in fertilizer sector since 2000, which has adversely affected the production of fertilizers in the country. The existing gap of about 10 million tonnes of fertilizers between demand and supply is likely to grow to 16 million tonnes by the end of 11th Plan thus necessitating import which would, obviously, cause drain on the state exchequer.

The fertilizer industry needs to gear up to meet national demands in view of the rise in the cost of raw materials/intermediates and finished fertilizers in the international markets. The country lacks raw materials for manufacturing phosphatic and potassic fertilizers. Large quantities of high grade rock phosphate and phosphoric acid for the manufacture of phosphatic fertilizers are imported. Potassium fertilizer is fully imported as the indigenous sources of potash are not of high quality and uneconomic for exploitation. The present prices of rock phosphate, sulphur and phosphoric acid used for the manufacture of phosphate fertilizers have increased by 3.5, 6.4 and 2.8 times, respectively, compared to the prices of last year.

Appropriate policy initiatives are, therefore, required to restore health of fertilizer industry, and make it a vibrant sector to face formidable challenges of supplying adequate quantities of fertilizers to domestic agricultural sector. The investment friendly policy is the need of the hour to enhance capacity through revamp, expansion, new plants and joint ventures abroad. A start has already been made in developing such ventures with Morocco, Jordan, Senegal, Oman, and UAE with 100% buy back arrangements for the products. A large number of old Naphtha and fuel oil based plants (present capacity being 26%) with about 2.5 times more cost of production compared to gas based plants need to be phased out. Seeing the present and future requirements, the fertilizer sector should have priority allocations of the natural gas. Although the supplies are going to improve soon with the production from the Krishna-Godavari (KG) Basin fields, the demand is likely to outstrip supplies.

The subsidy, hitherto, was fixed product-wise and not as per nutrient content in the product, and hence was a cause of nutrient imbalance and deterioration of soil health. Also, the fertilizers fortified and coated with micro- and secondary-nutrients could not be produced on a large-scale due to no provision in the fertilizer policy for meeting their additional cost on account of fortification and coating. To promote balance use of fertilizers, the Government has recently taken historical decisions on moving to nutrient based pricing and subsidy, and allowing additional cost of fortification and coating of fertilizers to manufacturers. The new policy would broaden the basket of fertilizers and enable fertilizer use as per soil and crop requirements. The other policy decisions taken by the Government are on paying freight subsidy for all fertilizers on actual basis instead of uniform basis and allowing higher rate of concession to single super phosphate (SSP) fertilizer. The freight subsidy on actual basis would ensure wider spread of fertilizers and their availability in distant areas from the manufacturing sites/ports. The upward revision of rate of concession on SSP would revive the SSP industry; suffering sickness for long, due to ad hoc and low rate of concession. Needless to say, the SSP containing 11% sulphur would correct widespread sulphur deficiency in Indian soils as well, besides serving as a P source.

Presently, only 15 fertilizers are covered under subsidy/concession scheme and a large number of other fertilizers including the products containing secondary and micronutrients are outside the ambit of subsidy policy. Hence, incentive for their use would be required. Also to reduce dependence on import of fertilizer raw materials/intermediates and finished products, we need to utilize all indigenously available nutrient sources. There are good reserves of low grade rock phosphate and potassium-bearing mica in the country. The reserves are uneconomic for exploitation as fertilizers could be used for production of enriched manures containing P and K through co-composting. The low grade phosphate rock could also be used for direct application in acid soils.

Phosphogypsum, a byproduct of phosphoric acid based fertilizer industry, contains 16 to 18% S and can serve as a potential source of sulphur to crops. Over 5 to 6 million tonnes of phosphogypsum are generated per annum by the industry. It may be included under FCO as sulphur fertilizer and considered for concession/transport subsidy. The product has a potential to supply about 1 million tonne of sulphur annually. There are also significant reserves of gypsum containing 16 to 18% S in the country, which can be exploited as source of sulphur besides serving as an amendment for sodic lands. The sources of lime like limestone/dolomite, basic slag from steel industries and lime sludge from the paper industries should be used for liming of acid soils to enhance their nutrient/fertilizer-use efficiency. Liming could save half of the recommended fertilizer, especially for legumes and pulses. Mass movement on vermi-composting, residue recycling and green manuring is to be undertaken as a mission in each and every village in the country.

The geo-referenced soil fertility maps including macro, secondary and micro-nutrients should be prepared speedily at district and block levels to serve as guide for proper fertilizer allocation, distribution and application. A good number of well equipped and functional soil testing laboratories, at least one in each district, are required to have precise soil test-based fertilizer recommendations. Research needs to be guided towards development of nano-fertilizers for enhancing nutrient-use efficiency, which is still low for majority of nutrients.

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