Source: Wall Street Journal
SOHIAN, India—India's Green Revolution is withering.
In the 1970s, India dramatically increased food production, finally allowing this giant country to feed itself. But government efforts to continue that miracle by encouraging farmers to use fertilizers have backfired, forcing the country to expand its reliance on imported food.
Popularized during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, fertilizers helped boost crop yields and transformed India into a nation that could feed itself. But now their overuse is degrading the farmland.
India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidized fertilizer for more than three decades. The overuse of one type—urea—is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling and import levels are rising. So are food prices, which jumped 19% last year. The country now produces less rice per hectare than its far poorer neighbors: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Agriculture's decline is emerging as one of the hottest political issues in the world's biggest democracy.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet announced that India would adopt a new subsidy program in April, hoping to replenish the soil by giving farmers incentives to use a better mix of nutrients. But in a major compromise, the government left in place the old subsidy on urea—meaning farmers will still have a big incentive to use too much of it.
The setback of the Green Revolution matters enormously to India's future. The country of 1.2 billion has positioned itself as a driver of global growth and as a significant commercial power in coming decades.
Behind the worsening picture is the government's agricultural policy. In an effort to boost food production, win farmer votes and encourage the domestic fertilizer industry, the government has increased its subsidy of urea over the years, and now pays about half of the domestic industry's cost of production.
Mr. Singh's government, recognizing the policy failure, announced a year ago that it intended to drop the existing subsidy system in favor of a new plan. But allowing urea's price to increase significantly would almost certainly trigger protests in rural India, which contains 70% of the electorate, political observers say.
"This is politically very difficult," says U.S. Awasti, managing director of the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd. and an informal adviser to government officials on the issue. The cooperative of 50 million farmers is the largest fertilizer producer in the country.
Farmers spread the rice-size urea granules by hand or from tractors. They pay so little for it that in some areas they use many times the amount recommended by scientists, throwing off the chemistry of the soil, according to multiple studies by Indian agricultural experts.
As the soil's fertility has declined, farmers under pressure to increase output have spread even more urea on their land.
Kamaljit Singh is a 55-year-old farmer in the town of Marauli Kalan in the state of Punjab, the breadbasket of India. He says farmers feel stuck. "The soil health is deteriorating, but we don't know how to make it better," he says. "As the fertility of the soil is declining, more fertilizer is required."
In 1967, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imported 18,000 tons of hybrid wheat seeds from Mexico. The effect was miraculous. The wheat harvest that year was so bountiful that grain overflowed storage facilities.
Those seeds required chemical fertilizers to maximize yield. The challenge was to make fertilizers affordable to farmers who lacked the cash to pay for even the basics—food, clothing and shelter.
"Without the urea, my crop looks sick," he said, picking up a few stalks of the young wheat crop and twirling them in his fingers. "The soil is getting weaker and weaker over the last 10 to 15 years. We need more and more urea to get the same yield."
Mr. Singh farms 10 acres in Sohian, a town about 25 miles from the industrial city of Ludhiana. He said his yields of rice have fallen to three tons per acre, from 3.3 tons five years ago. By using twice as much urea, he's been able to squeeze a little higher yield of wheat from the soil—two tons per acre, versus 1.7 tons five years ago.
He said both the wheat and rice harvests should be bigger, considering that he's using so much more urea today than he did five years ago. Adding urea doesn't have the effect it did in the past, he said, but it's so cheap that it's better than adding nothing at all.
Land needs to be watered more when fertilizer is used, and Mr. Singh worries about the water table under his land. When his parents dug the first well here in 1960, the water table lay 5 feet below the ground, he says. He recently had the same well dug to 55 feet to get enough water.
"The future is not good here," he said, shaking his head.
Balvir Singh, an agriculture development officer for Punjab state, says it is as if farmers have become addicted to urea.
"One farmer sees another's field looking greener, so he adds more urea," he says.
Farmers in Punjab are increasingly glum. "Farming is in shambles," said Kamaljit Singh, standing with fellow farmers in the courtyard of the village agriculture cooperative. "If we have to support our growing families and our increasing population on this land, we must get higher yields. Otherwise our families and our nation will suffer."