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

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

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.