public policy

Fertiliser subsidy reform plan was linked to soil health cards of farms – but it did not work

Experts question the quality of the information on cards and farmers do not trust it.

Only 35% of India’s annual outlay of Rs 70,000 crore on subsidised fertilisers reaches farmers. To plug the leakages, the government drew up an ambitious blueprint for reforms based on the use of three databases – land ownership records, soil health cards and Aadhaar, the biometrically linked 12 digit unique identification number. But the use of land records did not work in the experimental pilots carried out in Andhra Pradesh in 2016, as reported in the second part of this series. Did the soil health cards fare any better? The third part of the series takes a closer look.

When the Narendra Modi government decided to reform the system by which the nation’s farmers receive subsidised fertilisers, one of its aims was to end the indiscriminate manner in which they are being used. India has been supplying its farmers with cheap fertilisers on a large scale since 1977. But in many parts of the country, the excessive use of fertilisers has ended up degrading soil health and polluting water.

To ensure that farmers used their subsidised fertilisers judiciously, the government needed information on the soil conditions of farms.

For this, the government launched a scheme in July 2015 to provide 14 crore farming families with soil health cards in three years. The cards were to contain information and recommendations on the soil nutrient status of each agricultural plot. The information would be stored in a central database. When a farmer went to a fertiliser shop, a point of sale machine would check this database and inform the retailer how much fertiliser should be sold to the farmer for a particular crop, based on his soil health card.

Till July this year, the government has issued nearly 10 crore soil health cards. Giving farmers soil health cards to meet targets is one thing. Ensuring they are used to rationalise fertiliser use in the country is quite another.

As the first part of the series reported, farmers in Krishna district ignored the soil health card information that appeared on the machines. “When it comes to deciding how much fertilisers should be used, we go by our traditional wisdom and by what other farmers are using,” explained Babu Rao, a farmer in Krishna district. “We understand we might be using too much chemicals. But who will be responsible for the loss if we get poor yield by using less fertiliser?”

The retailers continued to sell as much fertiliser as farmers requested because they did not want to alienate their customers. By October, the government had quietly delinked the soil health card database from fertiliser subsidy delivery.

The point of sale machine in a fertiliser shop in Nashik, Maharashtra. Photo by Mridula Chari
The point of sale machine in a fertiliser shop in Nashik, Maharashtra. Photo by Mridula Chari

Lack of trust

Farmers in Krishna district had a simple explanation for why they could not trust the information on their soil health cards: because the soil on their farms hadn’t actually been tested.

To issue soil health cards, officials test one sample of soil each from a grid of 10 hectares of land in dry areas and two hectares of land in irrigated areas. Experts say this methodology may not produce reliable data for individual farms since the average size of agricultural land holding in India is 1.1 hectares, with 67% of the land holdings measuring less than one hectare.

Soil characteristics change from farm to farm depending on the cropping patterns and fertilisers use in those farms. Data on soil characteristics over larger areas can therefore be misleading when used to determine the inputs required on a specific plot of land.

The Union ministry of agriculture claims to have designed the soil health card based on a scheme of Gujarat government, which has boasted that every farmer in the state has a soil health card. But soil test results conducted by a research team of the Harvard Business School last year found that the data on Gujarat government’s soil health cards did not match with the soil test results in about 300 of the 800 plots tested.

In Andhra Pradesh, most officials in the agriculture department said that field staff and soil testing labs have been pushed beyond their capacity to meet targets to generate soil health cards. This has compromised the quality of data.

In Krishna district, where 33 lakh soil health cards were generated last year from the 95,000 soil samples analysed, said officials. The four soil testing labs in the district had the capacity to test only 21,000 samples a year. The officials claimed private consultants were hired and the labs ran day and night to complete the job.

Changing farmer behaviour

Recommendations on soil health cards did not have much impact on farmers’ fertiliser usage in other parts of the country too. In Bihar, a lack of confidence in the information listed on the soil health cards was the main reason farmers did not follow the recommendations, found a study done by the International Food Policy Research Institute in March last year. The other reasons were problems in understanding the information and the costs of the recommended fertilisers.

The Harvard Business School study, which was presented in the Indian Policy Forum earlier this year, suggested farmers in Gujarat changed their behaviour only when soil health cards were coupled with audio visual messages on their mobile phones and counselling by agronomists or agricultural extension officers.

But India has poor agriculture extension infrastructure. Only one extension officer is available per 1,000 farmers, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation.

The four soil-testing labs in Krishna have the capacity to analyse 21,000 soil samples a year. But last year, the four labs tested 95,000 samples to issue soil health cards to 33 lakh farmers. Photo by Kumar Sambhav
The four soil-testing labs in Krishna have the capacity to analyse 21,000 soil samples a year. But last year, the four labs tested 95,000 samples to issue soil health cards to 33 lakh farmers. Photo by Kumar Sambhav

Linking with Aadhaar

Even if the government is able to improve the quality of information on the soil health cards, linking them to the Aadhaar database for use in fertiliser subsidy delivery still remains a challenge. Within Andhra Pradesh itself, most districts had not recorded the Aadhaar number of farmers while issuing them soil health cards, said a state official who did not want to be identified.

Admittedly, this is a smaller challenge compared to the gargantuan task of testing the soil of 100 million hectares of farmland across the country in a manner that generates reliable data. A skeletal and centralised system of soil testing is unlikely to generate accurate information which is useful for farmers. Improving the quality of data is only the first step. Winning the trust of farmers, so they trust the fertiliser recommendations based on their soil health cards, would require a massive public outreach, coupled with better agricultural extension services.

Until then, like Babu Rao, most farmers in India are likely to rely on their own instincts rather than government advisories.

The government abandoned the use of land records and soil health cards for the fertiliser subsidy reforms, resting its hopes on Aadhaar. The fourth part of the series explores whether that worked.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.