Finally, there is attention on soils. The Finance Minister tried to give it some importance during his budget speech. A day after the budget speech, a few concerned parliamentarians quizzed the Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, about soil health and impact of chemicals. Though his answer reflected the usual “yes, we are doing that also” attitude, it is good to see soil health issues taking centre stage in Parliament. Thanks to the efforts of several grass root groups, think tanks and thousands of farmers from across the country who joined hands with us during the “Living Soils” campaign to make this happen.

Living soilsBefore going into further details of the budget and parliamentary discussions happening now, a few words on “Living Soils” - indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, catalyzed by the government subsidy policy, has been gradually ruining our soils. Neglect of ecological fertilization only worsened the problem. It has reached a level where our food security has been put at risk. To get to the bottom of this problem, Greenpeace India set out on a journey last year to speak to the real stakeholders - the farmers, in different parts of the country. The journey (which we titled Living Soils) started in Assam and went on to cover selected districts in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab.

We found out that the farmers were equally distressed. They too were caught in the web of chemical intensive farming. The results of the social audits by the Living Soils campaign were released in the form of a report - Of Soils, Subsidies and Survival in February 2011. The recommendations in the report got a good response from the finance ministry during the pre-budget consultations in January 2011. Finally when the budget was announced, this is what it had.

While announcing the budget, Union Finance Minister said,

“There has been deterioration in soil health due to removal of crop residues and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, aided by distorted prices."

There is a change in government language, evident in the Finance Minister's speech. The Government and policy documents have always in the past referred to "imbalanced use of chemical fertilizers" as the reason for soil degradation, which obviously leads to a solution of balancing the use of chemical fertilizers. This speech by the Finance Minister is a big deviation from the usual. He has tried to bring out a more holistic view point, attributing the crisis to lack of organic matter addition (removal of crop residues) and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers due to the subsidy policy of the government (distorted prices). This is something that we have been highlighting in our “Living Soils” campaign.

He went on to say,

" address these issues, the government proposes to promote organic farming methods, combining modern technology with traditional farming practices like green manuring, biological pest control and weed management (under NMSA)."

Living soilsHere, there seems to be a promise to promote organic farming/green manuring under National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). NMSA is one of the 8 missions under National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). It is still at a proposal stage, and hence there is no financial allocation for it. We need to see how this statement is reflected in action. A clear threat under the NMSA however is the chance for an influx of genetically modified crops, as one of the thrust areas under the mission is biotechnology.

The proposal to bring urea under Nutrition Based Subsidy (NBS) and decontrol its prices is a bold move. However what is needed is a gradual but complete shift of subsidies from chemical to alternative, eco-friendly means of fertilization. For this, the first step is to create an institutional mechanism to support ecological fertilization. Without a concrete investment in ecological fertilization, any permutations and combination with chemical fertilizers won’t solve the crisis.

While the budget speech clearly reflected some of the major concerns regarding soil health at least in words, the Agriculture Minister continues to be complacent. In the Parliament, he referred to our “Living Soils” campaign and went on to say that most of the recommendations that we submitted are already part of schemes and programmes being implemented by the Government. We rebutted with facts and figures.

These discussions at the highest policy making circles is taking soil health issues and the “Living Soils” campaign to the next level of nuanced debates. We need to challenge the complacency and also ensure that the words translate into action.