Union Budget 2023: Foundation for sustainable farming is missing in India

Ambitious initiatives for farmers are promising but transition to sustainable agriculture requires healthy soil and inputs

By Bharat Bangari, Alokita Jha, Kritika Joshi
Published: Tuesday 14 March 2023
Public-private partnerships for increasing cotton yield a welcome step; similar incentives needed for organic farming. Photo: iStock

The 11th Union Budget was presented in the Parliament on February 1, 2023 and was named the Green Budget. It featured various environment-friendly initiatives, with green growth among the seven primary priorities. 

Agriculture received the needed focus to become a climate-friendly and climate-resilient sector in the budget through the introduction of numerous ambitious projects, such as the Galvanizing Organic Bio-Agro Resources Dhan (GOBARdhan) project and the establishment of 10,000 bio-input resource centres across the nation. 

However, the allocation for the Department for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare was Rs 1,24,000 crore in the last Budget estimate, but Rs 1,15,531.79 crore this time — a decrease of about Rs 8,469 crore. 

Read more: Union Budget 2023-24 - Key Highlights (Agriculture)

The agriculture sector is transitioning fast in India, with several concerns such as soil depletion and extreme weather conditions. Additionally, the agriculture sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

The sector contributes 14 per cent of the total GHG emissions, according to the Third Biennial Update Report submitted by the Government of India in 2021 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Within the sector, 54.6 per cent of GHG emissions were due to enteric fermentation, followed by 17.5 per cent from rice cultivation, 19.1 per cent from fertiliser applied to agricultural soils, 6.7 per cent from manure management and 2.2 per cent due to field burning of agricultural residues. 

In this context, various programmes for sustainable agriculture presented in the budget are encouraging. However, there is still a need to delve deeper into topics such as the adoption of natural farming by 10 million farmers and the necessary foundations for climate-resilient agriculture in India. 

Budget 2023-24 announcements for the agriculture sector

  • Agriculture Accelerator Fund: The Fund will aim to abridge innovative and affordable solutions for challenges faced by farmers. It will also bring in modern technologies to transform agricultural practices and increase productivity and profitability.
  • Cotton crop productivity enhancement: The Union government will adopt a cluster-based approach to enhance cotton crop.
    Cluster-based and value-chain approaches will be adopted through Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to enhance the productivity of extra-long staple cotton. This will mean collaboration between farmers, the state, and industry for input supplies, extension services, and market linkages.
  • Agriculture credit to be increased: The agriculture credit target will be increased to Rs 20 lakh crore with a focus on animal husbandry, dairy and fisheries. 
  • Promotion of natural farming: Over the next three years, 10,000 Bhartiya Prakritik Kheti Bio-Input Resource Centres will be set up for natural farming. 
    Over the next three years, 10 million farmers are estimated to adopt natural farming. For this, 10,000 Bio-Input Resource Centres will be set up, creating a national-level distributed micro-fertiliser and pesticide manufacturing network.
  • Promotion of alternative fertilisers: It is a new scheme to provide incentives for the adoption of alternative and natural fertilisers. Five hundred biogas plants across the country will also be set up.
    The Prime Minister Programme for Restoration, Awareness, Nourishment and Amelioration of Mother Earth will be launched to incentivise states and Union Territories to promote alternative fertilisers and balanced use of chemical fertilisers.
  • GOBARdhan scheme: Five-hundred new ‘waste to wealth’ plants under the scheme will be established to promote a circular economy. These will include 200 compressed biogas (CBG) plants, including 75 plants in urban areas and 300 community or cluster-based plants, a total investment of Rs 10,000 crore. 
    A 5 per cent CBG mandate will be introduced for all organisations marketing natural and biogas. Appropriate fiscal support will be provided for the collection of biomass and distribution of bio-manure.

Missing foundation for sustainable agriculture

The ambitious initiatives for farmers are promising. However, a transition to sustainable agriculture requires healthy soil and inputs. A market and mechanisms need to be set up for the farmers to adopt natural farming and use chemical-free agriculture. 

Sustainable agriculture goals will be futile with the continuous growth of chemical fertiliser subsidies in India. There is rising usage and consumption of chemical fertilisers in India, suggested several data points. 

Read more: Science and technology to get over Rs 16,000 crore in Budget 2023-24, experts say not enough

In 2019, India was the second-highest producer and consumer of chemical fertilisers in the world. In 2020–21, the chemical fertiliser consumption in India, excluding single super phosphate (SSP), was 62.98 million tonnes, with a growth of more than 82.5 per cent since 2000–01. 

The large-scale adoption of chemical fertilisers is deteriorating the soil in India. Despite this, in 2020–21, the annual subsidy bill was Rs 1,31,230 crore, which is more than 10 times the subsidy bill of Rs 12,908 crore in 2001–02. 

Several reports have highlighted a widespread deficiency of micronutrients and organic carbon in India. Moreover, there has been a sharp decline in organic fertiliser production in India.

The unpredictability of weather conditions necessitates strong strategies to address the vulnerabilities in the agricultural sector. 

The Indian government launched the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) in 2016 after scraping down the earlier insurance schemes like Modified National Agricultural Insurance Scheme (MNAIS), Weather-based Crop Insurance scheme, and the National Agriculture Insurance Scheme (NAIS).

The PMFBY aims to boost farmers’ crops’ safety and ensure that the maximum benefit of crop insurance reaches farmers. 

However, despite the Economic Survey suggesting shifting crop patterns due to unexpected meteorological conditions, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the government’s flagship crop insurance scheme, was given Rs 13,625 crore — more than the 2022-23 revised estimates of Rs 12,375 crore, but less than the proposed allocation of Rs 15,500 last year. 

This makes the grounds shaky for achieving sustainability in this sector. As a result, without establishing a foundation for sustainable agriculture, how farmers will transition to natural farming is a vital topic that must be addressed.

Subsidies skewing fertiliser component ratios

The most heavily subsidised area of agricultural inputs is fertiliser. The budget outlay for the fertiliser sector will equal 5 per cent this fiscal year compared to a projected 4 per cent in the last fiscal, according to estimates

Read more: How to make Budget discussions in Parliament more fruitful

Urea dominates the fertiliser market in terms of subsidy spending. In recent years, subsidy bills for the non-urea fertiliser segment have also increased. 

The highly subsidised environment for urea has skewed usage towards Nitrogen (N), leading to a much wider N:P:K ratio of 7.3:3:1 (in 2022-2023) against the widely accepted ratio of 4:2:1

Sustainable agriculture begins with soil, and soil is the basis upon which the ground for resilient and climate-friendly agriculture should be built. With an increasing subsidy on chemical fertilisers and a weak research basis for organic and biofertilisers, sustainable agriculture might remain a vague vision in India. 

Challenges ahead

One of the primary challenges is the lack of scientific assessment of bio-inputs and bio-fertilisers. The precise prescription of biofertilisers and bio inputs to the crop is impossible in the absence of information on the NPKC levels of bio-inputs. 

At Organic and Fairtrade Cotton Secretariat, a Gurugram-based multi-stakeholder convening platform, we are trying to put this science together to know the required NPKC levels of the bio-inputs so the deficiency of NPKC per crop per acre can be estimated. 

OFCS was created as a space for stakeholders from across the value chain of organic cotton to deliberate on the challenges and opportunities for the sector, collaborate and take collective action for a thriving organic cotton sector. 

The foundation for sustainable agriculture in India should begin with more scientific assessments and inquiries into healthy soil conditions. We must lay the foundation first to encourage more farmers to practice natural farming. 

It requires research on bio-inputs and biofertilisers and a feasible market for organic agriculture to thrive in India.

Furthermore, with rising levels of pollution and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves and unpredictable monsoons, problems such as climate change and sustainability require greater attention. 

Read more: Organic and conservation farming boost multifunctionality of ecosystems: Study

Long-term measures such as using renewable energy sources for agricultural practices and preventing stubble burning should be promoted for environmentally friendly farming practices. 

Priority should be given to research and development of climate-smart agriculture. The public-private partnerships for increasing crop yield of crops like cotton are a welcome step, but similar approaches are needed to incentivise more productivity in organic agriculture in India.

Bharat Bangari is Advisor at Organic and Fairtrade Cotton Secretariat (OFCS); Alokita Jha is Program Officer at OFCS and Kritika Joshi is a Research Intern at OFCS.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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