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Addressing Fertiliser Imbalance in India

This report presents the results of a qualitative, diagnostic study of the Government of India’s Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme.

This paper presents the results of a qualitative, diagnostic study of the Government of India’s Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme. This scheme provides farmers with crop-specific fertiliser dosage recommendations, in an attempt to address the imbalanced use of chemical inputs, improve soil health, and boost agricultural productivity. Across eight districts throughout India, we interviewed 37 key informants and 450 farmers to assess scheme implementation and to understand the reasons for farmers’ non-adoption of recommendations. We find considerable deficits in the resources available to maintain soil sample testing quality; low emphasis on dissemination of test results by extension workers; and farmers’ non-adoption driven by a poor understanding of the card and limited trust in the recommendations. Most crucially, without significant modifications, our results suggest that the effect of the scheme in altering farmers’ input use behaviour, and ultimately improving agricultural incomes, will remain limited. On the basis of these findings, this study presents three feasible recommendations to improve scheme implementation and farmer adoption: redesign the SHC, supplement in-person explanation of recommendations by extension workers with technology-based messaging, and build farmers’ trust in the authenticity of their SHC recommendations.

A farmer in Meerut, India tests different iterations of the Soil Health Card.

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Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for over three-quarters of rural India, and 82% of those are small and marginal farmers, blighted by landholding fragmentation and stagnating growth in productivity. The slow transformation of the agricultural sector to generate higher output and higher incomes has contributed to ongoing agrarian distress across India.

Amongst many required reforms, addressing deteriorating soil health, caused by imbalanced application of chemical fertilisers, is one strategy that has the potential to improve productivity, input use efficiency, and ultimately boost farmers’ income. Soil Health Cards are intended to provide farmers with usable, crop-specific fertiliser recommendations to promote a change in farmers’ fertiliser application decision making, and encourage more judicious usage.

This qualitative, diagnostic study of the SHC scheme, in eight diverse districts across eight states, however, identified significant failings in execution that currently limit the success of the SHC scheme, and restrict the accomplishment of its primary objectives. First, the scheme’s processes – such as soil sample collection, testing, recommendation generation, and card distribution – are undermined by limited infrastructure and a lack of sufficiently trained manpower. The overburdening of extension services, in particular, compromises the quality of vital procedures, such as accurate soil sample collection, and prohibits extension workers’ adequate explanation of the card to farmers.

At the micro-level, we find that the majority of farmers are unable to adopt their SHC recommendations, even if they would like to, due to poor understanding. Barriers to comprehension are caused not only by structural problems such as low literacy and numeracy but are also exacerbated by unnecessarily complex and unintuitive card design, in addition to extension workers’ poor communication of the science to farmers. Amongst the farmers who are able to understand the recommendations on their card, moreover, many are not confident that following the recommendations could lead to benefits, and hence willingness to adopt remains low. This lack of trust derives largely from scepticism in the accuracy of the scheme’s grid-based sampling method and is further exacerbated by limited exposure to extension services as a trusted source of agricultural information and advice.

From the findings of this study, it is clear that the failures of scheme processes and the causes of farmers’ non-adoption are often entwined, and thus must be addressed simultaneously for the scheme to achieve its objectives. Yet, both sets of challenges are also fuelled by the centre’s preoccupation with output targets. Given the impressive record of distribution already achieved in the first two cycles, the government must now refocus its attention to monitor the quality of implementation, and most crucially, promote farmers’ adoption of recommendations. By doing so, the centre can provide a mandate for states to do the same; this is vital if meaningful changes are to be made at the state and district level.

To this end, three prioritised measures are essential for the government to improve the scheme: redesign the card, supplement existing in-person explanation of the card by the extension worker with ICT-based communication channels, and reduce the grid size whilst increasing the cycle duration.