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Low rainfall hits use of fertilisers

Kunal Bose 

It’s no-brainer that in a year like the present one, when the monsoon has played truant leaving the country rain deficient, fertiliser consumption will take a hit. The conventional wisdom is that the use of fertiliser is decided by simultaneous play of three factors – the weather, volume of land committed to farming and crop intensity of land.

What a season it has been. First the southwest monsoon arrived late hurting the sowing and replanting operation and then it took disconcertingly long time to gain strength. That the monsoon has lasted longer than the routine no doubt brings good tidings for the rabi sowings besides reviving some hopes for kharif crops. What nevertheless remains a cause of concern is that the monsoon remains nearly 22 per cent deficient. The agriculture ministry says the land under kharif paddy has shrunk by about 6 million hectares which translates into a loss of some 12 million tonnes of rice. At the same time, the earlier expectation of a smart recovery in sugarcane crop is dashed in spite of farmers, in UP in particular, receiving very high cane prices in the concluding weeks of last season’s crushing operation.

Indian Solvent Extractors’ Association president Ashok Sethia says kharif oilseeds crop could be down by up to 1.5 million tonnes in the wake of land under different oilseeds shrinking by 1.235 million hectares to about 16.8 million hectares. The kharif shortfall, according to Sethia, could, however, largely be made up in the forthcoming rabi season provided the farmers get a “30 to 40 per cent premium over minimum support prices” for the crops to be harvested now.

Deficit in land coverage and crops withering in many drought hit places will explain why in six months to September, sales of urea was down 6.2 per cent, muriate of potash by 14.3 per cent and complex fertilisers by 4.2 per cent over the same period last year. Diammonium phosphate has, however, a different story to tell with sales rising to 5.951 million tonnes from 4.978 million tonnes. This has got much to do with restocking at the dealer’s end ahead of rabi sowing operation. Bad weather and funds crunch have led to less use of fertilisers during this kharif season. But as the compulsion will always be to grow more food from more or less the same amount of land – in fact some farm land loss to industry seems unavoidable – to feed the growing population, we will have to replenish the soil’s nutrient levels at the earliest opportunity. Maintaining land’s fertility at a high level is also required to improve the supply of biofuels.

India became the world’s second largest user of fertilisers after China during 2008-09. The landmark year saw the country using nearly 25.3 million tonnes in terms of various nutrients, marking a double digit growth. Consumption growth there will be marginal this year too. Then also, if rabi sowing goes well. Late rain should leave adequate moisture in the soil.

The overall fertiliser consumption volume is large. However, there is no scope for exultation if we compare our per capita use of about 120 kg a hectare with China’s 302 kg a hectare. This is one reason, as an ICRA report points out, why the Indian average paddy productivity compares so poorly with China’s 6,265 kg a hectare.

Even worse is the fact that our neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh are using more fertilisers per unit of land than us. The wide disparity in the use of fertilisers by various regions is also not helping the cause of Indian agriculture. ICRA says, “Among the major crop producing Indian states, fertiliser consumption varies from 45.5 kg a hectare in Rajasthan to 210 kg a hectare in Punjab.” The skewed regional use of fertilisers needs to be corrected for boosting farm production. A sure way to boost fertiliser use will be to bring more and more land within the command area of irrigation. Examples of crop productivity rising up to six times when land has exposure to assured irrigation are there.

Incremental yield of this order then acts as an incentive to farmers to spend enough on nutrients leading to further productivity improvement. Moreover as irrigation is supportive of growing high yielding varieties of crops, fertiliser use gets an automatic boost.

In irrigated plots, the value cost ratio favours intensive use of fertilisers in desirable ratio of NPK. The country’s net irrigated area is around 45 per cent of the net sown area of 142 million hectares. Tapping further irrigation potential, therefore, enjoys high priority with the government. ICRA sees the possibility of creation of 16 million hectares of new irrigation potential in the current eleventh plan period.

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First Published: Tue, October 13 2009. 00:40 IST