Rahul Singh Tomar is a farmer at Raisalpur village in the Narmadapuram district of Madhya Pradesh. The village is part of the Narmada valley and is famous for the fertile black soil that yields high-quality wheat.

“The soil in our village is different,” Tomar told Mongabay-India. “Crops from here look different from the crops grown in other parts of the district. There is ample water for irrigation and we are able to grow three crops in a year.”

Right after saying this, lines of worry emerged on Tomar’s face. Despite the fertile soil and sufficient water supply, the average crop yield is not as much as they have expected. “This year, all the conditions – weather, wind, water – were favourable for a good yield,” said Tomar. “But the yield of wheat was not up to our expectations.”

Swadesh Dubey, a scientist at the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra, an agricultural extension centre, said, “This year, the weather was favourable for wheat production. After the first good rain, water was replenished at all sources of irrigation.”

“Then winter set in November and went on through most of March and the cooler temperatures aided wheat production,” Dubey said. This year there were also no reports of hailstorm or frost, that impact production.

Given these positive conditions, the farmers had high expectations, until the wheat production for the year was calculated – at 45-50 quintals per hectare. This amount had not increased over the last few years. The agriculture department in fact had the same amount of wheat production even seven years ago. The scenario raised questions among the farmers – has the production of wheat reached its maximum level? Is there no scope for an increase anymore?

In the last four years, the production of wheat in the Narmadapuram district of Madhya Pradesh remained stagnant between 4,800 kg per hectare and 50,000 kg per hectare. Photo credit: Rakesh Kumar Malviya

Suresh Diwan, a 77-year-old social activist who is well-versed with the farming conditions in the region told Mongabay-India, “The production of wheat in this area has touched its upper ceiling. The yield in this season has shown we should not expect more production of the crop now.”

Data from the agriculture department shows that in the last four years, the production of wheat in the region remained stagnant between 4,800 kg/hectare (48 quintals/ha) and 50,000 kg/hectare (50 quintals/ha).

Even as wheat production numbers remain stagnant, there has been an increase in the use of fertilisers in farming. Fertiliser consumption in Madhya Pradesh has doubled in the last five years, according to the Madhya Pradesh Economic Survey.

While district-wise data on fertiliser use is not available, farmers claim that the usage of fertilisers in the districts is probably higher than the prescribed standards. They speculate over whether the renowned soil of Narmadapuram has now lost its fertility because of high fertiliser use.

Diwan, who has spent his entire life in Gujari village in Narmadapuram, has seen the transition of the area over the last few decades. In the 1970s when the water moved through the canals of the Tawa dam in Hosangabad tehsil, several of the regions started becoming marshy.

“The soil of the region which was of very good quality suffered a setback due to the farming techniques that were adopted post the Green Revolution,” he said. “In the last five decades, the soil has lost its virtue and I have seen this deterioration in front of my eyes.”

Fertiliser overuse

Kashmir Singh Uppal hails from Punjab and is a former professor of Economics from the Itarsi University in Narmadapuram district of Madhya Pradesh. After retirement, he started working on agricultural research. He told Mongabay-India that Narmadapuram is on the same path as Punjab where the product is still good but the soil health has deteriorated with time.

Earlier, fertilisers were not used and then in the 70s, cow dung was used as a natural manure. Later chemical fertilisers were introduced and now, if one does not use fertilisers, there will not be enough production, he explained.

He also added that after the irrigation facilities increased after the Tawa dam came up, farmers focussed on cash crops while mixed crop farming took a backseat. According to District Gazetteer, till 1972, out of the total crop production, 32% used to come from wheat. In 2017, according to KVK figures, in the kharif season, wheat constituted 86% of the total crops produced.

The central government’s scheme that introduced Soil Health Cards to improve soil quality and production, is also failing in Narmadapuram. Photo credit: Ramesh Kumar Malviya

Rajesh Samle, a social activist who promotes organic farming, has been collecting crop production data for the last few years. He blamed unscientific agricultural practices for poor crop yield. He claimed that burning wheat straws is one such bad agricultural practice.

Due to the fire, the microorganisms found on the top soil are destroyed. Earlier farmers would till their farms during summer and leave them for some time and this gave strength to the soil but now even this does not help much.

Narendra Kumar Lenka is a scientist working in the soil physics unit at the National Institute of Soil. He said that to maintain the quality of soil, it needs to focus on organic farming. He said that burning of wheat straws is causing damage to the top soil and needs to be stopped.

The state government had done an aerial survey in the Narmadapuram and Harda districts on the burning of straws. This showed 2,700 incidents of straw burning.

Soil conservation schemes

In 2015, the Union government started a scheme of Soil Health Cards to improve soil quality and production. Under the scheme, soil health cards were issued to farmers every two years to keep them informed about the health of their soil.

The government stated in a press release celebrating five years of the scheme, that soil health examinations help in reducing the input cost as they help determine the right amount of fertiliser needed for farming in that farm.

This ensures better yield and better income for the farmer. The soil health card informs the farmers about soil nutrient levels, ways to maintain the right soil health and the right amount of fertilisers and nutrients needed for farms. The card also informs about the soil organic carbon quantity it possesses, which has an important role in separating nitrogen and phosphorus from chemical fertilisers and making them available for the crop.

However, the scheme seems to be in a poor condition in Narmadapuram. Way back in 1903 Jawahar Lal Nehru Zonal Agriculture Research Institute was started in the same district to conduct research on farming. This centre discovered several varieties of wheat. Soil testing was also a part of the research that went on here.

Mongabay-India recently visited this centre. OP Rajput, who works here, signs soil cards, even as machines around him collect dust. Not a single employee was found there. Citing his inability to respond to media queries, Rajput asked Mongabay-India to contact the district office for more details.

Meanwhile, a board outside this office showed data from the soil health inspection. This has not been updated since February 2021. According to soil investigation norms, the results should be made public within three weeks after receiving the samples.

Rajput said that the agriculture department in Madhya Pradesh suffers from a shortage of staff who are responsible for implementing the soil health card successfully.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.