Reforming Agrarian India through Soil Restoration

Agriculture has always been at the heart of India’s growth. Even with increased levels of urbanisation, India is an agrarian economy, where two-third of the population still thrive and depend on farming and agriculture for their livelihood. Soil and water are two main resources that contribute to agricultural progress but have been taken for granted, in recent years.

Current farming and cultivation methods frequently use chemicals and pesticides to increase yields, which has ultimately led to soil erosion and has significantly decreased the soil health of the country. According to National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in India the annual loss of healthy soil results in a deficit of 5.37 - 8.4 million tonnes of nutrients. This not only affects soil health for future yields but endangers the well-being of people, animals and plant life that depend on these resources.  

To maintain fertility of the soil, sustainable farming practices from sowing to threshing is imperative. Healthier soil can lead to effective water conservation, enhance crop quality, maintain soil biodiversity and improve the quality of the produce or corp. Communities and individuals must take the responsibility to implement healthier, natural ways of farming to restore the soil from further degrading.  

Agronomic concerns and the road to recovery 

Burning of crop residues, extreme tillage, flood irrigation methods and constant use of chemicals are common and recurring practices that lead to soil degradation.  Soil organic matter is a crucial indicator of soil health, and the soil organic matter content for most cropland soils in India do not meet the suggested international standards of 2-3%. With areas like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, as well as areas across Central and South India having only 0.2% - 0.5%, as reported by Dr. Rattan Lal who is a distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and a founding Director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. With crops grown in unhealthy soil, the quality and nutritional value of food is disturbed. Similarly, as high levels of soil erosion remove Soil Organic Matter (SOM), harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are emitted into the atmosphere, creating a detrimental health and environmental hazard. If these practices continue, it will result in large nutrient gaps with respect to soil health and food production.  

Supporting a Greener India 

While the responsibility lies with the cultivators to practice responsible and healthful agronomy, they require support of governing bodies and community members to stay resilient. The launch of soil health cards in 2015 by the Indian Government resulted in a decrease in the use of chemical fertilisers by up to 10% across India as per the latest study conducted by the National Productivity Council. This programme effectively created awareness and pushed farmers to test their soil regularly, helping them understand the importance of soil fertility and continuing their endeavour to yield quality harvests. Corporate support plays an important role in India’s strive to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality by 2030 adopting sustainable land management techniques.  CSR Interventions to enhance agricultural productivity through active soil and water conservation measures can help scale up Government’s efforts to protect natural resources significantly.  

As a significant stakeholder in the community, the social arm of a two-wheeler manufacturer, took on the responsibility to create a long-lasting impact through their development project in the agricultural district of Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. The Karisalpatti model watershed development project positively transformed three village panchayats and 21 hamlets, where the land was uncultivable due to heavy soil erosion and water scarcity. 37 Gram Sabhas were conducted to identify problems faced by farmers and understand the patterns of cultivable land.  Awareness was created on the importance of watershed management through the creation of a Watershed Committee which comprised of farmers as core committee member from every village. Further to this, persisting issues in the area related to deficit of soil organic matter, fodder shortages and low crop yields were also addressed.  

The project further enabled solutions such as larger irrigation tanks, adoption of terraced fields, improved forage production and livestock breed improvement. Further to this, the trust worked closely with the local farmers and motivated them to transform barren land areas to become cultivable by helping them adopt an integrated water resource management approach. To maintain soil health, the practice of drip irrigation was promoted, reducing flood irrigation methods among the community. Crop diversification was one of the main outcomes of this mission, pushing farmers to maintain soil fertility.  

To also ensure holistic growth, activities were implemented to enhance the supplementary income of the farming families by having family members enrol in self-help group and farmers groups or involving women in income generating activities. Through this comprehensive project, the trust was able to help 935 farmers convert uncultivated land to cultivable land, control top soil loss through soil conservation methods and increase ground water levels through water conservation measures.  

With the support of the Government, community members and industry pioneers the cultivators should adopt healthy and enriched practices of agronomy in India to restore soil fertility, which can successfully achieve the established Sustainable Development Goals. 

Author Details

Mr. Swaran Singh,
IAS (R) is the Chairman of the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST)

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