Growing up in a poor farming household in a small village in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district, Ramesh Raliya’s school bags were usually stitched from waterproof fertiliser sacks. Today, the 33-year-old chemical scientist’s invention, the nano urea, has the potential to not just help India save billions of dollars in imports and fertiliser subsidies, but also improve farm yields and prevent ecological damage caused by the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. Moreover, Raliya has licensed his invention for free to ensure Indian farmers can access it at low cost.
This week, IFFCO, the country’s largest fertiliser co-operative with revenue more than Rs 30,000 crore started the industrial production and sale of Raliya’s invention to lakhs of farmers.
How it works
Raliya’s patented nano urea, in liquid form, can be sprayed directly on the leaves during two key growth stages of a crop instead of chucking in conventional urea in granular form to the soil. A 500ml bottle of nano urea can replace the need for a 45kg bag of urea. “Nano urea is like taking an intravenous injection rather than popping a capsule. The ultra-small particles are better absorbed directly from the leaf than through the soil. More than 70 per cent of the conventional urea applied in the soil remains unabsorbed by plants and it wasted. It makes the soil acidic and the run-off ends up polluting water bodies,” explained Raliya, General Manager and Head of R&D at IFFCO. Raliya began working on nano urea in 2009 during his PhD at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and completed its development for use at industrial scale at Washington University, St Louis. “Several global agri firms were keen to buy the license, offered me attractive royalties and jobs with six-figure salaries. But my precondition was that nano urea should be made available to farmers at cost, or the lowest price possible,” he added.
In a letter to Prime Minister Modi in 2015, Raliya made a similar offer. Undeterred by the lack of response he persevered, and at the third attempt, PMO officials invited him to make a presentation to a large group of scientists and experts. Convinced about Raliya’s product after visits to his lab and trial fields in St Louis, the government hooked him up with IFFCO to commercialise it. In 2019, Raliya shifted base to India, joined IFFCO and set up a nanotechnology R&D centre at Gandhinagar.
Preventing excessive usage
India uses about 60 million tonnes of fertilisers annually. The Government spends nearly Rs 1 lakh crore a year in fertiliser subsidy or roughly Rs 7000 per farmer. This often acts as a perverse incentive for farmers to use them with indiscriminate excess leading to soil infertility, ecological damage and a toxic food chain. Punjab for instance uses 246 kg of fertiliser per hectare against a national average of 135 kg. “Our country lacks the raw materials for fertilisers. Oil and gas needed to make them are scarce resources and not sustainable. At IFFCO we believe in creating sustainable, innovative solutions to reduce the input cost of agriculture and increase farmers’ income. That is the reason we were able to create the world’s first nano urea liquid,” said US Awasthi, MD and CEO, IFFCO.
Urea, a form of fertiliser is used as a source of nitrogen for plant growth and development. Nitrogen is the key constituent of amino acids, enzymes, DNA and RNA and chlorophyll in a plant. Typically, the nitrogen content in a healthy plant ranges from 1.5-4 per cent. Since nano nitrogen particles are dispersed in liquid form in nano urea, they start acting almost immediately when sprayed on crop leaves to meet the crop nutritional requirement and also trigger pathways for uptake and assimilation of nitrogen.
All India trials, on nearly 40 crops at more than 11,000 locations, showed nano urea increases crop productivity by eight per cent (in fruits and vegetables the gains were as high as 24 per cent) and can reduce the need for conventional urea by half. Further, application of nano urea improves biomass, soil health and nutritional quality of the produce. According to IFFCO, when all its three plants start producing 32 crore bottles of nano urea annually, it could replace nearly 140 lakh tonnes of subsidised urea saving the country close to Rs 30,000 crore, not counting the benefits of significantly lower logistics and warehousing costs.
But, for a young man who could have make big money selling this commercially, why did Raliya choose to offer his research for free?
“Coming from a farming family, I have seen the hardships of agriculture first-hand. I was brought up to believe what you do for your country and community matters more than personal ambition. Moreover, as a scientist, I’m not giving away anything. This is my investment in my environment, farmers and country.”
Raliya’s school bag must have carried more than just textbooks.