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Soil pollution adds to farmers woes in Bundelkhand

In the last 20 years, nearly three lakh farmers have committed suicide, according India’s National Crime Records Bureau. In 2015 alone, 12,602 people employed in the farming sector committed suicide — a grave consequence of the agrarian crisis of India. While experts, politicians and media talk of MSPs, debt and crop failure, few have ventured to look at soil pollution.

“One way to think of soil pollution is to think about soil health,” explains Dr Jagannath Pathak, director of the soil department at the Banda University of Agriculture and Technology, “The quality of every harvest is dependent on the soil.”

Prem Singh a progressive organic farmer and founder of the Manveey Shiksha Sansthan, an agrarian research institute of Banda, explains, “There are three important elements to fertile soil: microbes, carbon and humus. When these three are found in a balanced manner in the soil, we say it has become fertile, and that it will give a bountiful yield.”

The government has estimated a food grain production of 272 million tons in 2016-2017, but this estimate has not taken soil health into account . The demands of a rising population has increased the pressure on limited agricultural land in India, which has made soil degradation a real threat to the 147 million hectares of cultivable land in the country.

“The basic problem for all farmers is that even the government doesn’t know about this,” claims Singh, “They may talk about soil health but they only focus on the factors that have resulted in reduced productivity.” Soil pollution has consequences beyond affecting agricultural yield — it could affect health of animals, plants and humans, contaminate air and water, and change the very structure of soil itself.

One of these three elements of fertile soil is particularly affected. “Right now, carbon dioxide in the air is increasing because the carbon in the ground is evaporating at a rapid rate — and as we all know, increased amounts of carbon dioxide is said to be poisonous,” explains Singh. He elaborates on the global nature of this atmospheric imbalance, “Six million tonnes of carbon is absorbed by the soil every year, but 6.5 million tonnes is evaporated into the atmosphere every year.” And data shows the status of organic carbon in the soil in most of UP is low.

“The first aspect of polluted soil is that its appearance and structure would be different”, says Dr Pathak, crouching down and running his fingers through the loose uppermost layer. He explains, “Soil is usually fertile till six inches below the surface. Below that, soil doesn’t have the capacity to grow things. And if it is polluted, the fertile land of the upper layer, appears to be worn off.” He then points to some white particulate matter in the soil and adds “Sometimes you’ll see a white powder formed on top. This white powder tells you that the soil has now accumulated many inorganic acid salts which have risen to the surface because of water.” The most easily identifiable sign he explains is colour: “Healthy, normal soil looks brown, but sometimes with pollution one can just look at the soil and know that it’s unhealthy because its colour is so off.”

But if there are so many visible signs of polluted soil, why isn’t this issue being paid more attention? The lack of information and resources among farmers, who are often uneducated, is a strong reason, according to Dr Pathak. Although there are 180 soil testing labs in UP alone, the state’s soil health card isn’t available online.

Singh identified two ways to bring back carbon into the soil. The first method is photosynthesis, which is the process through which all green plants convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen. “The carbon goes down into the soil through the root system,” he says. But he emphasises the importance of the second method: the use of compost. Compost is said to increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil and improve its soil structure.

Singh adds with disappointment, “The Indian government has not been effective in the provision of compost to farmers.” Instead, concession schemes run by the government to subsidise fertilisers and pesticides for farmers have resulted in the lack of application of organic manures — what Singh refers to as composting — which even the government’s Department of Fertilisers has recognised as the cause for the reduction of carbon content in the soil and the consequent stagnation of agricultural productivity.

Dr Pathak agrees that the health of the soil has been continuously worsening. “There are many reasons,” lists Dr Pathak, “like the continuous use of only one kind of fertiliser which makes the soil either acidic or alkaline, deforestation, pollution caused by air or water, imbalanced use of fertilisers, using too many chemicals indiscriminately, especially insecticides and pesticides.”

Attempts have been made even within the government to address the degradation of soil health. A report by the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture, for instance, found that in 2016 the consumption ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is 6.7:2.4:1 against their desirable ratio of 4:2:1; in Uttar Pradesh, it was 25.2:8.8:1. They suggested that the Union Ministry of Agriculture subsidise or incentivise organic fertilisers. “We’re clearly living in a world with imbalance, and the only way to recover it, is to use the method of composting”, reiterates Singh.

Dr Pathak is optimistic that there is hope for improvement, starting with the appropriate and balanced use of fertilisers and chemicals. “If we manage all of these factors, then our soil health can improve, along with of course, our farmers’ yields.”

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2019 19:22:04 IST

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