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Reducing Fertiliser Use to Cut Down on Imports and Trim the Subsidy Bill

Bag of ammonium phosphate sulphate of Gujarat State Fertilisers and Chemical. Photo courtersy of the company.

India needs to pare its fertiliser import bill with a bouquet of measures including getting farmers to apply less of it, promoting the use of liquid and nano fertilisers, incorporating chemicals in urea to reduce wastage of the nutrient nitrogen, and making more low-analysis fertilisers available instead of high-analysis ones.

R P Prasad, formerly of Coromandel International and Nagarjuna Fertilisers and Harish Damodaran, National Rural Affairs Editor, Indian Express, have made the following set of recommendations in their article in the Indian Express on 24 June:

India imported nearly 19 million tonnes (mt) of fertiliser in 2021-22 valued at $12.77 billion.  It also produced nearly 42.95 mt of fertiliser. The cost of imported raw materials and intermediates— natural gas, phosphoric acid, rock phosphate, ammonia, sulphur and sulphuric acid— was $11.5 billion. All told, India spent $24.3 billion on imported fertiliser and inputs in 2021-22.

Fertiliser is sold much below global prices. The subsidy was Rs 1.54 trillion (lakh crore) or $20.6 billion in 2021-22. It is expected to be Rs 2.5 trillion or $32 billion in this financial year. This is fiscally straining.

The authors of the article suggest the following measures to reduce fertiliser use without affecting crop output:

  • Incorporating urease and nitrification inhibition compounds in urea to slow down the rate at which it hydrolysed into ammonia gas and released into the atmosphere, and nitrified, leading to the loss of nitrogen through leaching.
  • Promoting the use of liquid or nano urea which plants absorb easily compared to bulk fertilisers. This, in the estimation of the writers, can reduce urea consumption by a fifth, prune imports by about 6.5-7 mt and the import bill by about $5 billion.
  • Promoting the use of single superphosphate (or SSP containing 16 percent phosphorous and 11 percent sulphur) and complex fertilisers like 20:20:0:13 (20 percent each of nitrogen and phosphorous and 13 percent sulphur).  Diammonium phosphate (18 percent nitrogen and 46 percent phosphorous) should be restricted to paddy and wheat.
  • Manufacturing “weak” phosphoric acid from rock phosphate which is entirely imported. It has 29 percent phosphorous and is good for manufacturing 20:20:0:13, 10:26:26 (10 percent nitrogen and 26 percent each phosphorous and potassium) and other low analysis fertilisers compared to the normal “strong” merchant-grade phosphoric acid which has 52-54 percent phosphoric acid.
  • Three-fourths of Muriate of Potash (containing 60 percent potassium) is applied directly and the rest is incorporated into complex fertilisers. It should be the other way around. The authors say that farmers need to be weaned away from high-analysis fertilisers (where the total amount of nutrients exceeds 30 percent, like  DAP where it is 64 percent). The shift to NPKS (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur) and SSP is already happening. It requires a hard push along with popularising high-nutrient use, efficient, water-soluble fertilisers like potassium nitrate, potassium sulphate, calcium nitrate etc) and exploiting alternative indigenous sources (potash derived from molasses-based distillery spent-wash and seaweed extract).

No plan to cap or reduce the use of high-analysis fertilisers can succeed if farmers are not educated about the alternatives to DAP and NPK complexes. Only then can the fertiliser application rate decline from 2.5 bags per acre to 1.5 bags. Agriculture departments and universities will have to recalibrate their fertiliser recommendations, the authors say, and these must be given wide publicity.

Link to the article.

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