The fertilizer pinch
June 24, 2022


  • In 2021-22, India imported 10.16 million tonnes (mt) of urea, 5.86 mt of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and 2.91 mt of muriate of potash (MOP).
  • In value terms, imports of all fertilisers touched an all-time high of $12.77 billion last fiscal
  • The total value of fertiliser imports by India, inclusive of inputs used in domestic production, was a whopping $24.3 billion in 2021-22.
  • India is the second-largest consumer of fertilizers globally, with an annual consumption of more than 55.0 million metric ton (550 LMT).

Production estimates

  • In 2021-22, India also produced 25.07 mt of urea, 4.22 mt of DAP, 8.33 mt of complex fertilisers (containing nitrogen-N, phosphorus-P, potassium-K and sulphur-S in different ratios) and 5.33 mt of single super phosphate (SSP).
  • The intermediates or raw materials for the manufacture of these fertilisers were substantially imported.
  • India imports over 25% of urea, 95% of phosphates and 100% of potash.

Category-wise data                     

  • Urea imports: In 2021-22, India imported 23.42 mt of liquefied natural gas (LNG) valued at $13.47 billion. Urea contains primary feedstock as natural gas.
  • MoPNG statistics: As per the petroleum ministry’s data, the fertiliser sector’s share in the consumption of re-gasified LNG was over 41 per cent. The industry’s LNG imports would have, then, been worth more than $5.5 billion.
  • Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP): For DAP, domestic manufacturers import intermediate chemicals, namely phosphoric acid and ammonia.
  • Phosphoric acid: The phosphoric acid is produced by importing rock phosphate and sulphuric acid. The latter can be further made from the import of sulphur.
  • Raw material estimates: During the last fiscal, 6.44 mt of phosphoric acid, 2.31 mt of ammonia, 9.66 mt of rock phosphate, 1.92 mt of sulphuric acid and 1.90 mt of sulphur were imported into the country.

Cost calculation

  • There are two costs involved in calculating the total value of fertiliser imports by India, inclusive of inputs used in domestic production as follows:
  • Foreign exchange outgo: Imports are mostly from China, Oman, UAE and Egypt -(urea); China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco- (DAP); Belarus, Canada, Russia, Israel and Jordan (MOP); Qatar, US, UAE and Nigeria -(LNG); Morocco, Jordan, Senegal and Tunisia --(phosphoric acid); Saudi Arabia and Qatar -(ammonia); and Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Togo -(rock phosphate).
  • Fiscal cost: The Indian farmers also pay below what it costs to import or manufacture using imported inputs. The difference is paid as a subsidy by the government. That bill was $20.6 billion in 2021-22 and projected at Rs 2,50,000 crore ($32 billion) this fiscal.
  • Repercussions: Both costs are unsustainably high to bear for a mineral resource-poor Especially with hike in global prices of urea, DAP, MOP, phosphoric acid, ammonia and LNG have soared two to two-and-a-half times in the last year.
  • Hence from earlier times when farmers had to be incentivised to use chemical fertilisers for boosting crop yields, today, they have to be restrained from over-application.

Scarce mineral resources

  • Even though no country has as much area under farming as India but there is one resource in which the country is short and heavily import-dependent i.e., mineral fertilisers.
  • At 169.3 million hectares (mh) in 2019, India’s land used for crop cultivation was higher than that of the US (160.4 mh), China (135.7 mh), Russia (123.4 mh) or Brazil (63.5 mh).
  • With its perennial Himalayan rivers and average annual rainfall of nearly 1,200 mm – against Russia’s 475 mm, China’s 650 mm and the US’s 750 mm, India has no dearth of land, water and sunshine to sustain vibrant agriculture.

Possible solutions

  • Minimize high-analysis fertilisers: There is a need to cap or even reduce consumption of high-analysis fertilisers , particularly urea (46 per cent N content), DAP (18 per cent N and 46 per cent P) and MOP (60 per cent).
  • Fertilizers that have more than 30% total available nutrients are called high analysis fertilizers, whereas those with less than 30% total available nutrients are called low analysis fertilizers.
  • Modus operandi: Reducing consumption of high-analysis fertilisers could be done by incorporating urease and nitrification inhibition compounds in urea.
  • About inhibition compounds: These are basically chemicals that slow down the rate at which urea is hydrolysed (resulting in the production of ammonia gas and its release into the atmosphere) and nitrified (leading to below-ground loss of nitrogen through leaching).
  • Thus, by reducing ammonia volatilisation and nitrate leaching, more nitrogen is made available to the crop, enabling farmers to harvest the same yields with a lesser number of urea bags.
  • Utilize nano-urea: The products such as liquid “nano urea” with their ultra-small particle size are conducive to easier absorption by the plants than with bulk fertilisers, translating into higher nitrogen use efficiency.
  • Positive outcomes: Hence it is possible to achieve a 20 per cent or more drop in urea consumption from the present 34-35 mt levels. That works out to 5-7 mt fewer imports, equivalent to $4.5-5 billion at current prices.
  • Enhance Single superphosphate (SSP) usage: By promoting sales of SSP (containing 16 per cent P and 11 per cent S) and complex fertilisers could cap the consumption of urea and other high-analysis fertilisers.
  • Import rock phosphate: India can also import more rock phosphate to make SSP directly or it can be converted into “weak” phosphoric acid. The latter, having only about 29 per cent P (compared to 52-54 per cent in normal “strong” merchant-grade phosphoric acid), is good enough for manufacturing low-analysis complex fertilisers.
  • About complex fertilisers: Complex fertilizers contain two or three primary plant nutrients of which two primary nutrients are in chemical combination.
  • Examples: These fertilisers are usually produced in granular form. eg. Diammonium phosphate, nitrophosphates and ammonium phosphate.
  • Restrict DAP usuage: DAP use should be restricted mainly to paddy and wheat, other crops don’t require fertilisers with 46 percent P content.
  • Restructuring MOP usuage: As regards Muriate of potash (MOP), roughly three-fourths of the imported material is now applied directly and only the balance is sold after incorporating into complexes. It should be the other way around.
  • Awareness: No plan to cap/reduce consumption of high-analysis fertilisers can succeed without farmers knowing what is a suitable substitute for DAP and which NPK complex or organic manure can bring down their urea application from 2.5 to 1.5 bags per acre.
  • Institutional efforts: It calls for agriculture departments and universities not just revisiting their existing crop-wise nutrient application recommendations, but disseminating this information to farmers on a campaign mode.


  • India, to re-emphasise and needs to wean its farmers away from all high-analysis fertilisers. The move to use more NPKS complexes and SSP, is already happening.
  • However, It requires a concerted push, alongside popularising high nutrient use-efficient water-soluble fertilisers (potassium nitrate, potassium sulphate, calcium nitrate, etc) and exploiting alternative indigenous sources (for example, potash derived from molasses-based distillery spent-wash and from seaweed extract).