Ujjwal Luitel is clueless about the Centre’s Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme. “What’s that? I have been farming since my adolescence. I haven’t heard of it,” replies the 34-year-old potato farmer of Pudung Khasmahal village, about nine kilometres from West Bengal’s Kalimpong town.
Under the scheme, launched pan India in 2015-16, a farm is supposed to get a new report on its card once every three years.
The scheme, launched by the state agricultural department on December 5, 2015, has been described as “a report card of a farmer’s field containing every required information about the soil’s health including deficiencies and excesses nutrients which farmers can refer to while using fertilisers”.
According to a press release from the ministry of agriculture, around 80%-85% of farmers in Bengal are covered by the SHC scheme. The ministry’s data show that as of 2020, 32.98 lakh cards were distributed in West Bengal, which has 71.23 lakh farmers.
Despite 80% of Kalimpong’s population being engaged in farming, the district has only one government soil testing centre that tests the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels. The nearest lab equipped to test all 16 kinds of utilitarian macronutrients that might be present in the soil is located at a three-hour drive in Darjeeling.
“The soil testing laboratory is pretty far from my plots,” Luitel said. “I have never seen any agriculture officer in our village. My neighbours and I had last sent soil samples for testing in 2018. It took months. We haven’t heard of the scheme.”
In Malda district, which accounts for 5% of the country’s total mango yield, orchard owner Dipak Saha, from Jote village, said, “A few months before the pandemic, a few agriculture department officials had come to collect some personal information and soil samples from my orchard. But I haven’t heard back from them since.”
Sandip Mondal, a college-educated rice and maize farmer from Jote’s neighbouring Anandipur village, “hasn’t received” any such card. “Officials don’t have time for us when we need them—they are either on election or COVID-19 duty,” he said.
Malda has only one soil testing centre. An official at the district agricultural chemist’s office said that though samples were collected from dozens of farms, only a few were tested. “We don’t have the infrastructure to handle the load,” he said adding that a test usually takes three to four weeks.
In Malda, where there are thousands of farming plots, testing can take up to months and even years due to the high sample load. Samples are mostly collected by third-party contractors. The local centres, therefore, end up sending several samples to bigger labs in the South 24 Parganas and Howrah districts. Some samples are even sent to a private Kolkata-based testing lab. The cost of private testing is divided 60:40 between the Centre and the state. “The red tape involved makes the process even slower,” the official added.
Once the tests are completed, they are passed on to the agriculture development office, which is responsible for updating the soil health cards. Even if mailing the physical copy of the card takes some time, one can view it online.
The agriculture ministry’s data on SHC is sketchy. The total number of farm holdings in West Bengal is 72.4 lakhs while the government claims to have distributed 92 lakh cards—50.4 lakh in the first phase (2015-17) and 42 lakh in the second phase (2017-19).
In Bardhaman and Birbhum, two of the country’s largest rice-producing districts with an average output of 2.8 tonnes per hectare, cards seem to be much more accessible. Farmers, however, find it difficult to understand the technical terms mentioned in the card. For example, units such as ‘pH’, ‘EC’ and ‘OC’ are some of the most crucial elements for soil health but none of the farmers interviewed for this report was aware of what they denote.
“My card came via post,” said Madan Addya, of Palash Danga village, in Bardhaman, “My wife received it. Neither of us could clear our secondary-level exams. Therefore, we didn’t understand much of it.”
A common problem pointed out by the farmers was that the Bengali words for ‘bio fertiliser’ and ‘organic manure’ are synonyms in the Bangla lexicon. This had confused several farmers although others figured it out that meant different things after reading the recommendations under these columns.
Out of Rs 12.28 crore released by the Centre to the state under the scheme in 2018-20, only Rs 5.92 crore has been utilised—that too in 2018-19. For 2019-20, data shows that no funds were utilised. Yet the government claims to have provided cards to 23.88 lakh farmers in Bengal in the same period.
“Many soil health cards exist only on paper,” pointed out Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan farm activist Nachiket Udupa. Citing Punjab’s case, he said, “The state government is reported to have distributed 24.30 lakh SHCs among the state’s 18.50 lakh farmers.”
The government should, according to Udupa, should equip and utilise primary cooperative societies at the village level to implement such schemes. “But the government is outsourcing such work to private companies that farmers don’t trust.”
Another issue pointed out by the farmers is the late delivery of cards. During the first phase, the SHCs arrived after the sowing season. The cards are most valuable before sowing. There are also concerns regarding the site-specificity of the recommendations since soil samples are collected on a grid level and not at an individual level.
Despite these problems, experts said that farmers consider the card important. Farmers believe that the government’s recommendations would guide them towards reducing the production cost and increasing yield.
Citing Bengal’s situation, agriculture researcher and activist Ranjini Basu noted that in 2017-18, when 9.02 lakh were distributed, the state was consuming 17 lakh tonnes of fertiliser against the recommended 11.75 lakh tonnes. Of this, the top six higher-yield districts accounted for more than 8 lakh tonnes. In 2020, with SHC coverage at 32.98 lakh, the state’s fertiliser consumption was 15 lakh tonnes with high-yield districts reducing their usage to 6 lakh tonnes, she added.
“Most farmers actually test the SHC’s recommendations on tiny lots before because they don’t understand them completely,” Basu added. “Training programmes on how to interpret the card are very important. Since this programme’s ultimate objective is to change the input application behaviour, the end-user [the farmer] should receive information in a way he understands and from a trusted source.”
The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.