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Increasing Use of Fertilizers:LOOK AT CHEAPER & SAFER ALTERNATIVES,Dr. Vinod Mehta,2 August 2007 Print E-mail

Economic Highlights                           

New Delhi, 2 August 2007

Increasing Use of Fertilizers


By Dr. Vinod Mehta

Fertilizers have played a significant role in raising the productivity of Indian agriculture.  It is common knowledge that the Green Revolution was based on a package of inputs that included fertilizer, water, high-yielding varieties of seeds etc. Today, fertilizers are gaining prominence as an important agricultural input in our quest for attaining consistent surplus in the agricultural sector. This is a common pattern in developed countries, where fertilizers are used to boost the agricultural output, especially grain production to feed growing population.

In the past over four-and-a-half decades, both the production and use of fertilizers in the country has been increasing by leaps and bounds. The available data shows that the production of nitrogenous fertilizers has increased from 80,000 tonnes in 1955-56 to 107 lakh tonnes in 2001-02.  Similarly, the consumption of fertilizers has increased from 66,000 tonnes in 1952-53 to 173 lakhs tonnes in 2001-02. 

Even though the production of fertilizers has gone up, we are still dependent upon imports for a significant portion of our needs. In 1970-71 imports of fertilizers stood at 629, 000 tonnes and in 2001-02 they stood at 2,398, 000 tonnes. The use of fertilizers has helped increase the grain input of the country to the extent that we are self-sufficient in its production. Besides, in times of natural calamities like drought, we are able to meet our food requirements from domestic sources only. All thanks to the use of fertilizers.

However, the negative aspect of the whole thing is that the subsidies which are being paid to the fertilizer industry are enormous.  India has no comparative advantage in the production of fertilizer. Therefore, to keep the fertilizer units viable the Government has been paying huge subsidies to this sector.  India's fertilizer subsidy bill has escalated from Rs. five billion in 1980-81, to over Rs. 60 billion by the mid-'90s, and further to Rs.162.50 billion as per the 2005-06 budget. India spends over 0.7 per cent of it’s GDP on fertilizer subsidies--almost twice the entire amount we spend on higher education.

Such an amount of subsidy is playing havoc with the State finances.  It is a sheer drain on the central funds.  All attempts made in the past have so far not been successful in curbing subsidies on fertilizers. What needs to be stressed is that we have gained self-sufficiency in grain production at a very high cost. And, this amount of subsidy is unsustainable. 

One of the factors for this subsidy is that the fertilizer units require a lot of LPG to run them.  Since we don’t have sufficient reserves of LPG, we are being forced to import LPG it at a very high cost.  Therefore, the important question before us is: if the country has no comparative advantage in the production of fertilizers, then why should it not close down the fertilizer units and meet its requirements from imports? It would be cheaper and this way we won’t be forced to pay a subsidy of over Rs 8,000 crores year after year.

The other important aspect is that India has large reserves of coal and perhaps natural gas.  Why cannot we develop a technology that uses coal energy to produce fertilizer and thus reduce production costs of fertilizers?

There is also an environmental aspect to the fertilizer industry.  Indiscriminate use of fertilizers by farmers is also making vast tracts of agricultural land useless. Though the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers is aware of the damage being caused to environment by the use of fertilizers not much has been done to improve the situation.

Along with the use of fertilizers has come the use of pesticides and insecticides. These are health hazards for those who eat the produce of agriculturists using fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides in a big way. Like diesel, which affects the health of the people by way of environmental pollution, the use of fertilizers, pesticides etc., too is directly affecting peoples’ health.

The Government is well aware of this hazard and is, therefore, encouraging research on bio-fertilizers. However, it is moving very slowly. If it wants it can play an important role by encouraging research on bio-fertilizers and reducing their dependence on imported fertilizers.

The other draw back from the use of fertilizers is that different types of fertilizers need to be combined in appropriate proportion with other fertilizers like Potash, which is not manufactured in India at the moment.

In the long run, the indiscriminate use of urea without potash could damage the productivity of agricultural land. In this connection, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers has set up an Expert committee to prepare the R&D road map for the fertilizer industry and also monitor its progress. But this needs to be taken up seriously.

Another important question that begs an answer is: do we really need to use fertilizers on such a large scale to increase our agricultural output?  Studies by many economists have shown that better use of irrigation water can achieve the same result and at a much lesser cost.  One of the economists has worked out that if the fertilizers subsidy budgeted for 1997-98 is used for sinking wells it could generate capacity to irrigate at least three million hectare of land. Besides, within less than three years the additional output due to increased irrigation would more than compensate the loss of output due to increased prices of fertilizer and consequent reduction in its use.  This is an important issue which needs to be discussed at all the levels.

In addition, India has vast human and cattle population. Can’t we find out a way to collect the human and cattle waste on a large scale and turn it into traditional manure. Some countries like China have not only mastered the use of scarce water in an economical way but they have also mastered the use of human and cattle waste as traditional manure to increase the productivity of agriculture.  Thus, on the one hand we have chemical fertilizer that is not economical for India to produce and on the other we have large quantities of human and cattle waste which can be a cheaper substitute for fertilizer.

Today, many countries are moving away from the excessive use of chemical fertilizers to the use of traditional manures, organic manure and bio-fertilizers to sustain the increase in agricultural productivity.  Researches on such types of manures have been strengthened so as to fight the threat posed to the general health of the people by the excessive use of fertilizers.  India also needs to strengthen its researches in this direction to protect the health of its population.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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