Policies must be aimed at building capacity of soils, not promoting agrochemicals: experts

Scientists and practitioners deliberate on how to reverse soil degradation by taking cognizance of principal causes and policy gaps

By Subhojit Goswami
Published: Tuesday 28 February 2017
In many states, between 40 and 80 per cent of the land area is classified as degraded in some form or other. Credit: CIAT / Flicker

Arresting land degradation, reviving soil health and managing waste to prevent soil contamination were the recurring themes at the ‘National Conference on India’s Soils: Science – Policy – Practice Interfaces for Sustainable Futures’ held at IIT Delhi.

The conference brought together three important stakeholders in soil health management in India: scientists, policymakers and practitioners.

Continuing degradation of India’s natural resource base has been the major trigger behind hosting this conference. The objective has been to understand and reverse current degradation of India’s soils with special emphasis on marginal, small and medium farmers.

Current policy paradox

According to a 2010 report by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, 120 million hectare (38 per cent of total area) of land in India is degraded. Moreover, in many states, between 40 and 80 per cent of the land area is classified as degraded in some form or other. Fault land and water management, coupled with application of agri-chemicals add to the problem.

Despite this, the amount of chemical fertiliser subsidy has grown exponentially in the last three decades from Rs 60 crore in 1976-77 to a whopping Rs 70,000 crore in 206-17. According to the concept note on the conference, “This chemical nutrient-based subsidy approach has sidestepped the fundamental crisis facing India’s soils: the loss of life.” The policymakers have not been able to the bio-dynamic and living nature of soils. The hydrological dimension of soils has also been ignored.

Reviving soil health

Amar KJR Nayak from Xavier University, Bhubaneswar, suggested why we should gradually move from exotic seed to indigenous seed and focus on in-situ moisture rather than external moisture. As an experiment on a one-hectare farm, he and his team have been able to conserve nearly 100,000 litre of water throughout the year through water locking system.

M Palinisamy of Dhan Foundation demonstrated how soil moisture can be enhanced through tank silt application.

Soil contamination

Stating clearly that the NGT order on February 2, 2017 'distorted' waste management rules that promotes biomass burning, Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch said, “Waste in India has high nutrient content that can enhance soil health. It also has high moisture content, which makes it unsuitable for burning.”

Pointing to the ‘abundance of scientific evidence’ that holds unscientific incineration of mixed solid waste responsible for causing contamination of local soil and vegetation, Krishna said, “It is due to environmental lawlessness that we continue to focus on waste maximisation and not minimisation.”

Speaking about soil contamination due to pesticide, Dileep Kumar from Pesticide Action Network harped on the fact that out of the 40 pesticides recommended by the government, 26 are highly hazardous. Raising concerns over the fact that only one per cent of pesticides actually strike the target and rest kill non-target organism, Kumar said, “About 81 pesticides are proven to cause endocrine disruption and 56 pesticides are carcinogenic. Even in soils, these pesticides lower enzyme activities and cause a decline in nutrient health.”

Summing up the day’s event, Jagadananada, former State Information Commissioner of Odisha, said, “I think we need a new framework and discourse on moisture management and a gradual transition to agro-ecology. Besides treating soil health as a public good, we should situate science in local context.”

Highlighting the purpose of this gathering, Rajeshwari Raina of Shiv Nadar University said, “We must reflect on how to create a synergy between knowledge, policies and practices so that we can make an integrated effort towards establishing healthy and sustainable soil systems.”

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