Under the initiative, the Government tests the soil health of Indian farmers. Soil samples are taken according to a grid sample whereby 25 million soil samples are taken regularly throughout India and a farmer receives a new soil health card every three years. More specifically, soil samples will be taken according to a grid system whereby a soil sample is taken every 2.5 hectares for irrigated land and every 10 hectares for rainfed areas. The soil sampling initiative is supported by GPS tools and taken at a depth of 15-20cm in non-shaded areas; these samples are tested at a soil laboratory. The specificities of the scheme can be accessed through th e government’s web portal.
By the end of February 2016, the government had distributed 11.2 million soil health cards to farmers and expects to distribute another 20 million by the end of March with 140 million soil health cards expected for distribution by 2017. The Government has allocated USD$84 million for the scheme which is intended to cover the cost of collecting the soil sample, testing it in a laboratory, as well as the creation and distribution of the soil health card to farmers (the total cost per soil health card is estimated at 190 rupees).
Considering claims of widespread over fertilizer usage and land degradation in India the development of this scheme is highly relevant. A recent publication, supported by IFPRI, on the ‘Economics of Land Degradation,’ which includes a chapter on India highlights that it is officially estimated that up to 44 percent of Indian land is degraded and this has severe costs on the development of rural areas. The main causes of land degradation identified by the study in India are the overuse of fertilizer, largely caused by fertilizer subsidies, and decreasing land availability. The chapter recommends “changing the behaviour of the farmer through the right set of institutional arrangements and market-based instruments.” In this regard, soil health cards are particularly useful through creating awareness of the importance of soil health and providing recommendations to farmers that support improving and maintaining soils. However, it should be noted that farmers’ soil characteristics and needs of the soils can vary widely within one area.
The testing of soils has already produced some results and recommendations for farmers. For instance, soil samples in Ganjam district in Odisha have shown high levels of acidity in soils, as a result famers in the district have had the recommendation to grow green manure crops prior to growing paddy crops. It will be interesting to see the forthcoming results of this initiative.