Indian farmers have a long history of supplementing soil fertility by using organic and green manures with judicious practices dating back to over 100 years. The growth in chemical fertilizer usage was, however, very slow upto the 1950s confined only to plantation crops. Post Independence, government envisaged the need to increase fertiliser use to enhance food grain production. Various favourable policies were implemented during 1960s and 1970s which had the desired impact and India emerged as the second largest user of fertilisers in world after China. Total fertiliser consumption (NPK) reached a record level of 28.1 mt in 2010-11 (Fertiliser Statistics, 2011-12, The Fertiliser Association of India).
Per hectare fertiliser consumption increased from 5 kg in 1965-66 to 141 kg in 2010-11. The introduction of fertiliser responsive high yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice and wheat in mid-60s coupled with the expansion in irrigated area and HYV coverage, marked a turning point in Indian agriculture and the increased fertiliser usage played a key role in the sharp increase in food grains productivity (Fig. 1).
Balanced plant nutrition is a pre-requisite to achieve better yields. Consequently, all governmental programmes aim at increasing fertiliser consumption in a balanced manner using 4:2:1 NPK consumption ratio as a guideline. To supplement governmental efforts, Indian fertiliser industry initiated a number of programmes for the farmers—soil testing, fertiliser demonstrations, crop seminars, village adoption, farmers meetings and dealer trainings. Combined efforts of government and industry helped in increased and balanced use of fertilisers. However, the two policy decisions i.e., sudden decontrol of P and K fertilisers in August, 1992 and implementation of Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS) Scheme on P and K fertilisers from April, 2010 adversely affected the promotion of balanced fertiliser use.
Based on the recommendations of the Joint (Parliamentary) Committee on fertiliser pricing, the prices, movement and distribution of all phosphatic and potassic fertilisers were decontrolled from August, 1992. The subsidy on these fertilisers was completely withdrawn resulting in sudden increase in retail prices of P and K fertilisers. Simultaneously, the retail price of urea was decreased by 10 per cent. This created a distortion in price ratio of P and K vis-à-vis N. With a sharp increase in prices the use of P and K decreased considerably. At the national level, the NPK use ratio widened from 5.9:2.4:1 in 1991-92 (before decontrol) to 9.5:3.2:1 (after decontrol). The Indian government took immediate measures to correct the situation by introducing an adhoc concession scheme on P and K fertilisers, which helped in reducing the prices and improved the NPK use ratio.
The selective implementation of NBS Scheme on P and K fertilisers from April 2010 has again aggravated the problem of imbalanced nutrient use. Under the Scheme, the amount of subsidy is fixed annually by the government, and the retail prices are fixed by the suppliers keeping in view the cost of production and imports. The urea which constitutes more than half of the total fertiliser products used in the country continues to be out of the purview of NBS. The retail price of urea remains suppressed whereas the prices of P and K fertilisers has increased substantially during the same period, adversely affecting the consumption of P and K during the last two years. Thus the NPK use ratio skewed further from 4.3:2.0:1 in 2009-10 to 7.9:3.1:1 in 2012-13. Bringing urea under the ambit of NBS policy is thus the need of hour to achieve a fair balance in NPK prices and to promote balanced fertiliser usage.
Indian fertiliser industry has been witnessing sudden and adhoc policy changes since 1990s which has created an environment of uncertainty. Consequently, the fertiliser industry is now faced with various production, import, pricing, subsidy and availability related problems. The imbalanced and inefficient use of fertilisers is resulting in deterioration of soil fertility, emergence of multi-nutrient deficiencies in soil and a decline in productivity.
Imbalanced fertiliser use
India is now second largest user of fertilisers in the world. However, the per hectare fertiliser consumption is still low, and now imbalanced too, compared to many developing countries including the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. In fact imbalanced fertiliser use has aggravated in last three years as is evident by distortion in NPK consumption ratio in Table 1.
Uneven Growth in Consumption
Although there has been good growth in fertiliser consumption in the country—it has not been spatially uniform and a wide gap exists in per hectare fertiliser consumption among states/ districts. The per hectare fertiliser consumption in fact varied from less than 5 kg/ha in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim to more than 200 kg/ha in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu during 2011-12 (ibid.). In the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, annual fertiliser consumption has crossed 3 mt and these accounted for 40 per cent of the total fertiliser consumption during 2011-12. There also exists a wide variation in fertiliser consumption among crops. Rice and wheat account for more than 50 per cent of total NPK consumption; while if rice, wheat, cotton and sugarcane is analysed, it adds up to almost two third of India’s fertiliser consumption.
Narrow Product Mix
There is a list of more than 100 fertiliser products in the Fertiliser Control Order (FCO), however, only three products—urea, di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and muriate of potash (MoP) dominate the consumption pattern. Urea accounted for 82 per cent of the total N consumption in 2012-13 (Annual Review of Fertiliser Production and Consumption, 2012-13, The Fertiliser Association of India). The share of other nitrogenous fertilisers such as ammonium sulphate and calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) has come down to 1 per cent because these are not under the statutory price control as urea. Among phosphatic fertilisers, DAP accounted for 64 per cent of the total phosphorus consumption. The single super phosphate (SSP), once the important source of P, now accounts for only 10 per cent of total phosphorus consumption. The decrease in consumption of SSP has aggravated the problem of sulphur deficiency in Indian soils because SSP is a good source of phosphorus and sulphur. Phosphorus plays an important role in root, seed and fruit development and stimulates flowering. Likewise, sulphur is very important for oilseeds and helps in synthesis of oils and formation of chlorophyll.
Emerging Multi-nutrients Deficiencies
Seventeen nutrient elements are recognised as essential for growth and development of plants. The plant cannot complete its life cycle in absence any of these nutrients. Three elements (carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) are taken up by plants from air and water whereas other 14 nutrients are taken from the soil; and fertilisers, organic manures, farmyard manure etc. These essential plant nutrients are classified into three categories i.e. primary (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash), secondary (calcium, magnesium, sulphur) and micronutrients (zinc, iron, manganese, copper, boron, molybdenum, chorine and nickel). Each essential nutrient is equally important and plays a specific role in plant growth and development.
There is a continuous decline in soil fertility as Indian soils are being mined of their plant nutrient reserves with continuous and consistent cropping. Against an estimated annual depletion of 36 mt NPK from soil, the replenishment through fertilisers is only 28 mt, leaving a net annual deficit of 8 mt which keeps accumulating year after year. The continuous depletion of nutrients from soils coupled with inadequate and imbalanced fertiliser use has resulted in the emergence of multinutrient deficiencies. The deficiencies of at least six nutrients (NPK, sulphur, zinc and boron) are quite widespread in the Indian soils. Also the increasing deficiencies of secondary and micro-nutrients particularly sulphur and zinc have started limiting the crop response to primary nutrients (NPK).
Weakening Fertiliser and Food grains Relationship
Although, there has been a record increase of over 10 mt in fertiliser consumption during last decade (2000-01 to 2010-11), the increase in fertiliser use has not resulted in corresponding increase in food grain production (Fig. 2). A decline in productivity has been noticed in recent years, which is an indicator of the non-sustainability of the agricultural production system.
Declining Fertiliser Response
Crop response to fertilisers is low and declining in our country. The average crop response to fertiliser application (kg grain/kg NPK) has declined from 10: 1 during 1960s and 1970s to 8: 1 during 1980s and 6:1 at present. With the decline in crop response to fertilisers coupled with increase in inputs cost, the profitability of the farmers is falling year after year.
Unfavourable Pricing Policy
Favourable fertiliser pricing is key to balanced fertiliser use. The sudden and adhoc changes in fertiliser policy as well as the present fertiliser pricing policy is responsible for distortion in NPK use ratio which is skewed in favour of N. Moreover, there is no encouragement for product innovation under the fertiliser pricing policy that is in place at present. The inclusion of a new fertiliser product in FCO takes a long time as it involves a number of steps including field trials at multi-locations and in multi-seasons. It may be mentioned that a product can only be produced / imported or sold in India as fertiliser after its inclusion in FCO.
The compulsion to produce more from decreasing per capita land availability will continue to put increasing pressure on the land resource. With continuous increase in population, the land-man ratio has decreased from 0.34 ha in 1950-51 to 0.15 ha at present. The net cultivated area in India is stagnant at around 140 mha for the last 30 years. This means the country has to produce more and more from decreasing land availability.
India would require 45 mt of nutrients (NPK) to produce 300 mt of food grains to feed its population of 1.4 billion by 2025—meaning thereby that the dependence on fertilisers will increase manifold to meet this demand. Besides it also needs to be ensured that farmers use fertiliser in a balanced and efficient manner. The adoption of fertiliser best management practices like right product, right dose, right time and right method of fertiliser application should be ensured at the farmers’ level. Extension agencies should ensure that farmers use the fertilisers in accordance with soil and crop requirements and deficiency of any nutrient does not become a limiting factor in achieving optimum yields. The coverage under fertigation should be increased to improve both fertiliser and water use efficiency. The products and practices which improve fertiliser use efficiency should be encouraged by all concerned agencies.