The travail for soil health in Bagalkot

Mudhol Taluk

In Mudhol taluk of Bagalkot district in Karnataka, the Soil health card scheme has failed as the scheme implementation is wrought with difficulties that defeat its objective.

The agriculture office in Mudhol is responsible for distribution of soil health cards in the taluk | Credit: Shoby Krishna G

Shankar S. Irappanapar’s abode is unembellished and humble. He lives with his brother in a joint family. The entire family is involved in cultivation of sandalwood, marigold, neem and onion in the 10 acres of land they own in Soragaon, Mudhol taluk of Bagalkot district. He has recently applied for government license to cultivate mahogany which would take 12 years to mature.

Shankar’s family has been one of farmers where traditional knowledge that has been passed on rides supreme over any new initiative scheme by the government. He does not have insurance for his crops, the vitality of which he realised when all of his crops were submerged during the floods in August 2019. He says, “I can’t say that agriculture has been profitable to support such a big family. But, we do get by with a decent harvest every year. I never understood the need for insurance till all my crops were destroyed in 2019 floods.”

He adds that with every passing year, there has been a problem with declining soil fertility. He has tried to shift to organic farming but still the yield has not recovered. He says, “NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) is the standard fertiliser that farmers use. With every passing year, more quantity of the same fertiliser is needed to get the same yield.”

He is dismissive about soil testing. He says, “I tested my soil at the soil testing lab in Jamkhandi, the nearest taluk. I did not bother to get the card as my neighbours who had got the cards told me that the recommendations suggested by the officers in the lab did not make a difference in improving the soil fertility.”

Not the only one:         

Shankar is not the only farmer to dismiss the utility of testing their soils and getting a Soil Health card. Many other farmers in the village like Deepak Patil, Kadappa Lakshmappa Kanabur are not aware of the soil properties of the area.

The maps of the district in the soil testing lab, Jamkhandi and Agricultural Extension Education Centre (University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad), Mudhol categorise Bagalkot district as area with black soil.

Black soil, also called as regur soil has high water retaining capacity and is naturally rich in phosphates and iron. The agricultural profile of the state in Karnataka agriculture department website, Raitamitra shows that 79 percent of the total soil area is deficient in zinc.    

But, Shankar, Deepak and others are unaware that the soil in the region is not deficient in NPK, but instead in micronutrients such as zinc, boron and iron as the district has black soil. So, addition of more NPK would not improve the fertility but would lead to land degradation. This defeats the purpose of the scheme which specifically targets overuse of chemical fertiliser.

Kavita Angadi, the soil analyst in Jamkhandi soil testing lab says, “Farmers throughout the district of Bagalkot come to this lab for testing their soils. The cards are issued in 3- 4 days from the day the farmer gives us the soil and water samples. The soil is tested for various micro and macro nutrients. After checking 12 parameters, personalised recommendations are made so that the farmer can obtain improved yield without compromising soil fertility in the long run.”

The 12 parameters checked by testing the soil are ph (to determine acidity), Electrical conductivity of the soil, organic carbon, levels of major nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Sulphur) and levels of secondary and micro nutrients (Sulphur, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Iron and Boron).

Different parameters are tested with different equipments spectrophotometer, EC meter, pH meter and flame photometer.   

The soil testing lab in Jamkhandi has different equipments to test different soil parameters | Credit: Shoby Krishna G

The Soil Health card has test results of all the 12 parameters with an indication of high, medium, sufficient or normal across each parameter. Further, it has organic manure recommendation levels for major crops grown in the area such as wheat, maize, jowar, sugarcane, bengal gram and sunflower.

The card mentions biofertiliser name and quantity for each crop and suggest two fertiliser combinations for each crop with terms like Single superphosphate and Muriate of Potash.

Priyanka Ligade, who was the soil analyst in the lab before Kavita, says, “The scheme has good objectives. But, it is lost in implementation due to various factors. We have to explain the recommendations in Kannada to illiterate farmers who cannot read the card. Many of the farmers come and complain that they did not see any improvement in fertility despite following the card instructions.”

Both Priyanka and Kavita agree on the point that farmers do not understand that yield levels are not dependent on soil fertility alone.

Why does soil health matter?

Soil Health Management is an important component under National Mission for Sustainable agriculture.  The scheme implemented by Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ welfare establishes its primary aim as promotion of ‘Integrated nutrient Management’ by managing the level of fertilisers used by farmers. The scheme which was introduced in 2015 has seen the issue of 10,73,89,421 cards in cycle 1 and 11,69,06,425 in cycle 2 throughout India. Data from Department of Agriculture website shows that in Bagalkot district, till now 1,391 samples were tested and 1,388 SHCs have been printed under model village program, as of April 4, 2020.

On the other hand, Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas released by ISRO in 2016 shows that around 37 percent of the total geographical area of Karnataka was under land degradation/ desertification for 2011-13. India is also a signatory to United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which is the only legally binding international convention to address land degradation. The UNCCD website says that it works in tandem with two other UN conventions- Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Conference of Parties 14 for UNCCD was held in New Delhi in September 2019 where India took charge as President for 2 years. The parties agreed to make the goal of achieving ‘Land Degradation Neutrality’ by 2030, a national target.

Haunted by the effects of Green revolution:

So, why do farmers use NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) fertilisers obsessively despite the soil of the region being rich in NPK? It can be traced back to the era of the Green revolution that occurred in 1960s and 1970s. During that period, NPK was used to boost yield, the price of which is being paid today.

 In December 2014, the then Minister of state for agriculture, Mohanbhai Kundaria told Rajya Sabha about the findings of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). In its study ‘Long term fertiliser experiments’, it was found that “continuous use of nitrogenous fertilizer alone resulted in the highest decline in crop yields.” The study also pointed out the deficiency of micronutrients, which affected soil productivity in the long run.

Basavaraj H. Sutar, Assistant engineer, CADA Jamkhandi says, “In 2019, almost 10,000 hectares of land was lost to land degradation. Farmers use chemical fertilisers continuously and the soil becomes barren in a few years. This land is unfit for cultivation and even weed does not grow here. This loss can be avoided if fertiliser usage is optimised.”

One of the obstacles in the scheme achieving its objective is the method of selecting land for testing. The present system is grid based where one sample is drawn from a land of 2.5 hectares in irrigated area and 10 hectares in rain fed area. All the farmers in the 2.5 hectares or 10 hectares would receive the same recommendations though the fertiliser use pattern of every farmer in the chosen grid might be different.

Malappa S. Bujrukh, Lab in charge and Agriculture officer, Jamkhandi says, “The issues that have to be tackled in this area are reduction of fertiliser application and sustainability of soil fertility. The Soil Health Card scheme provides a good window to achieve this. Some farmers have tested their samples voluntarily and have benefitted. Yet, to benefit every single farmer, the model village scheme has been introduced.”

The model village scheme is designed on the premise that every farmer should receive personalised soil recommendations. Hence, one village from each taluk has been selected where drawing of soil samples is farmer based and not grid based.

The chosen model villages are Kadapatti from Jamkhandi taluk, Birkabhi from Belagi taluk, Kishori from Mudhol taluk. Benakati from Bagalkot taluk, Nimbalgundi from Hunghund taluk and Hanumaneri from Badami taluk.

Bujrukh says, “The model village scheme will definitely benefit every farmer as everyone will get SHCs. This will ensure that the entire village moderates its usage of fertiliser and sets a model for other villages.”

Kishori- not an exemplary:

Yet, reality begs to differ. On visiting Kishori, one of the model villages situated off Mantur road, it is observed that some of the farmers have their agricultural lands in Kishori and residence in the next village, Ambalsari. This means that a farmer with residence address in Ambalsari will not be issued SHC for his agriculture land in Kishori. The further implication is the failure of the model village scheme as it would leave out such agriculture plots and farmers.

Yalappa Naykr, one of the farmers who owns two hectares of land and got his soil tested four months ago hasn’t still received his card. He says, “The agricultural officers from Mudhol came and tested our soils but there has been no follow up. We were not given any advice regarding the usage of the cards.”

Rudrappa Pujar, who received his SHC a year ago, says that the card was safe in a locker in his house. He adds, “If the officers ask for my card, I can produce it. I obtained the card after testing my soil in Jamkhandi lab. I thought it was a mandatory document. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have got it. I prefer following my usual fertiliser pattern rather than go with the card recommendations.”

 Lakshmanna Kambali, who also got his soil tested four months ago says, “The officer said we would receive our cards soon but still we see no signs of it. I am not the only farmer in this village without a card.”

The answer to the mystery of missing cards is in Mudhol Agriculture officer, Renuka Godudappagoudar’s answer. She says, “Out of the 285 samples collected from the village, 180 cards have been issued till now. The remaining cards are with the panchayat office that is yet to distribute it.”

She adds, “We can only give the cards and not supervise if the farmer is exactly following the instructions. It is imperative that there is a change in the mindset of the farmers. The farmers are so adamant that all our awareness programs go in vain.”

Holebasappa Talwar, the concerned officer in Melligeri panchayat, under which Kishori comes, begs to differ. When contacted and asked about the cards that are yet to be distributed, he said, “100 SHCs were distributed in August 2019. The remaining cards have already been printed and are in the agriculture office. When it is sent to us, we’ll distribute them.”

Data regarding implementation of the soil health card scheme from the Department of agriculture website shows cent percent for the categories of samples collected, tested and cards dispatched for the cycle of 2017-18 to 2018-19 in Karnataka. Meanwhile, data for the same for model village program (2019-20) shows that 100% samples were collected and 99% samples were tested and cards dispatched for the same.

While the officers and farmers continue to play the blame game, Dr. A.H.Biradar, Agricultural Extension Education Centre (University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad), Mudhol says, “Training farmers using mass media is a vital factor for any scheme to be successful. Farmers in villages mostly do not readily adopt new methods to improve their farming. There is a stigma to every new technology till they see someone who has had success with it.”

The silver lining:

Meanwhile, the scheme is not a total failure as Venkappa Yadawda, a farmer from Kishori says, “Agriculture department has selected our village as Model village. They did some soil testing and distributed these cards to us. After this, crop yield has been better. I have reduced using fertilizers. They gave demo on how to improve fertility which has been very useful.”

Demonstration is one of the methods adopted by the government to increase the reach of the scheme. The guidelines for demonstrations under Soil Health card scheme says that is in line with the principle of ‘seeing is believing.’ The 10 page document describes in detail various aspects for the demonstrations such as village selection, funding, planning, implementation, monitoring, reporting and documentation.  

Similar to geo-tagging of assets under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the guidelines call for geo-referencing and geo-mapping of the demonstrations. It also calls for creation of a location map of each model village by plotting all the samples collected.

While all this reflects a methodical approach towards implementation of the scheme, it remains a question as to how much of the theory translates into practice on ground.

The success of any scheme is a double-edged sword as there are beneficiaries of who swear by it and others who see the scheme as futile. In fact, the website for the scheme offers farmers the options to print their soil health cards and track their samples. Apart from this, it also offers fertiliser dosage for crops and locates soil testing labs nearby. The website also offers services in the 22 scheduled languages, apart from English.

India is a country where more than half of its workforce is dependent on agriculture. The success of any government scheme is not based on the numbers that the records show, but rather on the benefits reaching the beneficiary.

Hence, the Soil Health Card scheme can be ascertained as successful only when Shankar S. Irappanapar starts using the card recommendations, along with traditional knowledge to improve the health of his soil.


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