Fertiliser shortage heaps pressure on Modi government ahead of state elections

An acute shortage of fertilisers in rural India threatens to disrupt the winter planting season, stoking unrest among the country’s politically important farmers ahead of a series of crucial state elections next year.

Desperate farmers in central and north India have thronged state-run shops selling subsidised fertilisers and clashed with police who have used force to control the crowds. In some states, officers have taken to distributing bags of fertilisers at police stations to keep law and order.

Farmers, frustrated at having to sit in snaking queues for days, have held sit-in protests to demand delivery of the fertilisers. They contain basic nutrients such as diammonium phosphate or DAP, crucial to growing wheat, mustard and other crops sown in the rabi or winter season.

“Only one or two trucks arrive when there are thousands of people waiting to grab it,” said Yograj Singh, a farmer in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab.

Singh had just returned home disappointed after trying to join the queue for fertiliser at 4.30am. “I need at least seven bags but have so far secured only three after trying for days,” he said. “We need it now.”

Fertiliser shortages threaten to galvanise voters ahead of state elections in the early months of 2022, including in opposition-controlled Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is in power.

Farmers are a politically vital constituency in a country where the majority of the population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture for their income.

The BJP has struggled for more than a year to resolve protests by thousands of farmers demanding the withdrawal of a series of laws introducing market reforms into the highly regulated agricultural economy. The protesting farmers said the reforms threaten their livelihoods.

Modi’s government, however, denies there is any shortage of fertilisers, blaming the frustration on rumours that is causing hoarding. In November the “availability will surpass the demands raised by the states”, said Mansukh Mandaviya, minister of chemicals and fertilisers.

He also warned of strict action against those “who resort to black-marketing of fertilisers using rumour as a shield”.

Soaring global prices of fertilisers, reduced production of raw material during the pandemic and supply disruptions have fuelled the crisis. But critics have castigated Modi’s government for a delay in placing import orders. India imports up to a third of its fertilisers for domestic use.

“It is a governance issue,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chair of Bharat Krishak Samaj, an Indian farmer’s association. “I think the government messed up because the subsidy component rose and the government couldn’t decide on releasing that much extra money.”

The government provides subsidies by compensating companies that sell fertilisers to farmers at below market rates. Last month the government announced an additional subsidy of RS57.16bn ($758m) for DAP to ensure the prices remained under check.

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