Check soil health before use of fertilisers

A deficient monsoon and a global slump in commodity prices have taken a toll on Indian farmers, who have spent heavily to save standing crops,

but will have to sell their produce at depressed prices. The situation is worse in dry and arid regions of Vidarbha in
Maharashtra and Telangana, with regular reports of farmer suicides. In an interview, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh comments on these issues. Edited excerpts: The recently released ‘Key Indicators of Situation of Agricultural Households in India’ shows that the lot of Indian farmers has not changed in the past decade. How will you remedy this situation? Being a farmer, I admit this is the reality. The country might have progressed, but a village and a farmer’s life have not improved. There is no doubt we are self-sufficient in foodgrains production, but we have not addressed problems of low productivity, rising costs of cultivation, lack of irrigation and giving farmers improved varieties. No schemes were taken up in mission mode to solve these issues.
India has 145 million farm holdings. Farmers are not aware of soil health and they blindly use fertilizers. The result is a drop in productivity. Our government has initiated programmes on mission mode to give every farmer a soil health card. We will spend Rs 568 crore in the next three years towards this.
Our other focus is to bring irrigation facilities to small and marginal farmers. Sixty-five per cent of cultivable land still does not have irrigation facilities. Even such facilities are limited to states like Punjab and Haryana, and for large farmers. Crores have been spent to provide irrigation in (dry and arid) Vidarbha and Bundelkhand (by the previous governments), but the facilities never reached the fields. We are bringing various departments—rural development, agriculture and water resources—in an integrated way to increase access to irrigation. We are following the example set by Gujarat to provide every farmer with a soil health card and irrigation facilities. Our other focus is to strengthen the existing Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) to take the lab—scientific research and improved varieties—to the land. Further, we are planning to connect the entire country through an e-marketing network. Most of these schemes have not taken off. Why this delay? These schemes are planned from state and district levels. It will take three years to give soil health cards to every farmer. We have already spent Rs 86 crore on soil health laboratories in six months compared with Rs 112 crore spent between 2007 and 2012. The irrigation scheme is being implemented by four ministries—on 29 December, the Prime Minister reviewed it and gave his suggestions. We are in the final stages and will launch the scheme soon. Funding is not a problem. Several state governments haven’t been able to spend the money allotted to them in past fiscal years.
Nabard (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) is in charge of implementing the credit scheme for landless farmers. I don’t know the
New thrust: exact numbers, but the finance minister has said the scheme is well on target. A farmer knows that you cannot harvest the day you sow the seeds. Results of our initiatives will show in a few years. Last year in Vidarbha and Telangana, more than 1,000 farmer suicides were reported. Your ministry is yet to act. Only 9% of farmer suicides are linked to agrarian distress. Of nearly 500 farmer suicides last year, 411 were in Maharashtra. Final numbers are yet to arrive. In Maharashtra, I have personally seen that (past) irrigation schemes were not executed. In the coming weeks I will meet MPs (members of Parliament) from Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, and the Maharashtra chief minister to fast-track agricultural schemes. All suicides are regrettable, but the crisis in farming has been perpetuated by lack of implementation and focus. In Telangana, farmers grow cotton in unsuitable soil without irrigation. Deficit monsoon and slump in prices have aggravated the misery. What did the government do? As far as cotton is concerned, the textiles ministry has done record procurement this year. Globally, prices have crashed after China stopped imports. We started procurement with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as the cotton crop is harvested there earlier than states like Gujarat. The government has acted promptly to ensure farmers do not sell below minimum support prices.
Rest of the problems—lack of irrigation and information on soils—are past sins. There is also a failure of extension services— lack of manpower and no coordination between KVKs and district agriculture officials. We formed a committee to probe the problem with KVKs—the report shows lack of infrastructure and scientists. Based on the report, we will take up strengthening of KVKs. We have already increased the number of agricultural extension officers from 18,000 to 26,000.
Agriculture is a state subject. Extension officers belong to state governments, while we have the scientists (with KVKs under ICAR, or Indian Council of Agricultural Research). We will issue guidelines for regular interaction between KVK scientists and agriculture and extension officers. Be it dissemination of new technology or knowledge, we have to take it through state governments. We will speak to all state governments, it does not matter if they are run by other political parties.