Nov 1, 2010 – With a bachelor’s degree in history from the Chandigarh University, Sukhvinder Pal Singh Sandhu, 54, is not quite the typical, troubled Indian farmer. A product of the Green Revolution era, with his 30-acre farm resplendent with a crop basket of cotton, kinnow, wheat and mustard, Sukhvinder Sandhu – born and brought up in a traditional farming family and a farmer himself since 1982 – cuts a happier figure. For mustard he used the ‘Mahalaxmi’ seed sold by the Rajasthan State Seed Corporation. For wheat he has chosen the 1482 and 3077 varieties that he procures from the Ganganagar Research Centre, which collaborates with the Rajasthan Agricultural University. His most profitable crop though is Bt Cotton.

This relative prosperity sits well on this farmer in Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan in North
India, village 10FF, uniquely named after the canal on whose bank it is located, very close to the India-Pakistan border. Yet life is hardly a bed of roses for him. “We farm against the elements; the climate is very harsh and extreme. The annual temperature varies from 3oC to 47oC; even in a day the temperature could vary up to 25oC”.

Farming is all this society knows and under the prevalent social value system, “land is everything”; it is always a part of the farmer’s persona and identity. Farming is a matter of life; not a business because one can hardly look at farming as a business proposition these days. Upon the death of his father, his mother told Sukhvinder: “it is not that I alone have become a
widow, my land is also widowed”. That says it all.

Generally, the farmer’s is not a happy lot. Agriculture needs sustained faith in land and god because the farmer is buffeted from every side. “On the one hand there is the high cost of inputs; on the other, the farmers are fleeced by traders and shopkeepers and their innocence and dependence is exploited by the system”, says Sukhvinder. Nor is government policy conducive for agriculture and there is little or no agriculture extension service in this area. “Instead of encouraging consolidation, the government promoted division of land, thus making
agriculture holdings small and scale of farming uneconomical. Agriculture is now only possible
through co-operative activities like participating in ‘producer companies’ and it is not feasible to be done individually. It is now costly to buy new 65 implements or run tractors”. There is rampant agricultural indebtedness that ruins this most “noble and interesting profession. To make farming debt free is the most stupendous task”.

There are other problems galore: water inadequacy, amongst others. Farming is possible in Sri Ganganagar only because of water from the Gang Canal made “under Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, a great visionary”. Given the indifference of the government, the Gang Canal “has been the lifeline for farming in this area”. However, even a lifeline has a life span and the demand for water has been growing. Sugarcane is a high water consuming crop and not a local one. Yet the government has put up a sugar mill in Sri Ganganagar and has incentivised farmers to grow sugarcane despite the occasional shortage of even drinking water here. Adding to the inconsistent water supply woes are the tube-wells that the farmers are compelled to bore even when the water is saline, worsening soil health. Even worse, the Rajasthan canal is being extended to areas of the state where agriculture is not feasible. “The flood irrigation of the system will not only waste precious water but destroy the land as well”.

Yet the prospect of water makes people lose their ability to see reason. More so because land here is valued according to the availability of water. “The cost of water is a joke. The ‘mamla’ (payment for water) for six months of water use is Rs 120 per acre for sugarcane; Rs 80 per acre for cotton; Rs 60 per acre for wheat. We are supposed to get water ‘bari’ twice a month. For one ‘maraba’ (16 acres) a farmer gets water for approximately three hours per time from the canal. For every ‘maraba’, one ‘bari’ of water irrigates a fourth of the land”, says Sukhvinder. “Farmers are ready to pay up to 10 times more for canal water, provided they get consistently good supply”.

Sandhu inherited the farm from his father and took to farming at a time the Green Revolution was changing the north Indian landscape with its focus on irrigation and chemical fertilisers to increase farm produce. Sukhvinder Pal Singh Sandhu fell prey to the magic wand like most others in the region. For them, all chemical fertilisers were like manna from heaven as they helped increase yield several-fold over the years, as in adjoining Punjab, which became the ‘granary of India’ even as its soil was gradually being degraded by the often mindless and rampant use of chemical fertilisers. So ask this agriculturist if he has done everything right and he shakes his turbaned head ruefully: “I regret that I did not use fertilisers wisely”.

Some three decades later, Sukhvinder Sandhu’s soil is ailing; the yields first plateaued off and then started the movement downhill. Deprived of its fertility even the crops it yielded has essential nutrients missing. Today he blames the rampant use of nitrogenous fertilisers that have caused the “decline in productivity, as the quality of the soil has degraded over the years”. He points at the overuse of chemical fertilisers that hardened the soil making it unable to retain the amount of water that it normally did. There is also an imbalance of nutrients in the crop produce.

Overuse of chemical fertilisers leads to loss in soil humus and degrades the soil. It also results in poor aeration and drainage, which are essential for the roots. “Even the taste goes
missing in the food prepared from such crops” rues Sukhvinder Sandhu.

Another widely used fertiliser is urea, a convenient source of nitrogen. With government subsidy for urea higher than for any other fertiliser, it comes cheaper than most fertilisers in the country and its excessive use is the bane of the sector. Urea has been used extensively in many parts of India apart from the north, rendering the soil hard and alkaline at all places. This is because excessive use of urea decreases the moisture-retaining capacity of the soil. With progressively increasing soil hardness, the chemical fertilisers required for the soil also increases. Such soil requires a second round of urea treatment just after 10 days because of the decrease of moisture-retaining capacity of the soil. On the other hand, soil treated with fertilisers that have less chemical content require a second round of treatment after 20 days or more.

Even where farmers are well aware of the negative impact of excessive use of nitrogenous fertilisers, they seldom have a cheap alternative. Says Sandhu, “This forces farmers to stick to the usage of nitrogen-rich fertilisers even when they are aware of its ill effects”.

Sandhu is equally regretful of his mono-cropping practice. He used to grow crops year after year on the same land without crop rotation with disastrous consequences. Crop rotation is a standard practice for fertility conservation and ensures a permanent cover for the soil. This helps avoid disturbance of the topsoil layer.

The answer now is to “go quasi organic, which is a cost-effective solution to rejuvenate soil”, says Sandhu. Using compost laced with small traces of fertilisers would not only protect the soil from the effects of long-term exposure to chemical fertilisers but would also help increase fertility at a far lower cost than that incurred in using chemical fertilisers. “Good compost can be made at home from animal excreta, vegetation, grass and other bio-degradable waste materials”, says Sandhu. Farmyard manure if used judiciously, is capable of maintaining soil fertility over long periods of time. Sandhu is now wisened with experience as he has switched over partially to the use of organic fertilisers.

Having lived through the golden years of the Green Revolution and suffered its ill effects, he says: “Farmers should analyse the chemical properties of the soil as well the crops they plan to sow before going in choosing the chemical fertiliser”. Fertilisers custom-designed to the needs of a specific environment and soil-type should not be used in other regions without proper assessment and consultations, he cautions.

The biggest issue, of course, is about increasing soil fertility and this demands knowledge about every soil characteristics and qualities. “Farmers also need to be educated about sustainable agricultural practices that would ensure farm fertility on the one hand and increase productivity on the other hand”, says Sandhu. This is where the government needs to intervene proactively in terms of enhancing knowledge levels through regular workshops. Farmers should also understand that it is the nature of the soil that gives them sustenance. “Soil is a living and breathing organic matter, we need to take care of it”. Simple words; worth their weight in gold.