In the arid village of Kharia Khangar, 90 km from Jodhpur, where Ramesh Raliya, 34, grew up, agriculture was possible merely four months of the year. The rainfed kharif crops of millets and legumes were hardly sufficient to sustain a joint family comprising eight siblings and Raliya’s father. His mother doubled up as a seamstress walking the mud-baked streets barefoot carrying a sewing machine on her head. A white cement factory township near the village provided her a decent clientele. Her sewing skills also came in handy for repurposing fertilizer sacks as school bags for her children. The family’s hardships could ease only if farming turned into a year-round enterprise, or if the yields went up miraculously. Those were the two key questions that occupied Raliya’s mind since childhood, and indeed continue to motivate his scientific research. Only, the scale of his concern has grown from immediate family to poor farmers of India.
A subsidy slasher
A globally renowned interdisciplinary biotechnology scientist, Raliya’s work on synthesising novel inorganic and organic nano particles has produced ten patents. His invention of nano urea in liquid form has the potential to not just help India save nearly $40 billion in imports and fertilizer subsidies, but also improve farm yields and prevent ecological damage caused by the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals.
Despite eye-watering offers from some of the top crop science mulltinationals to buy his patent for $10 million plus a guaranteed an annual salary of $300,000 Raliya chose to license his invention for free to IFFCO, the country’s largest fertilizer co-operative with revenues exceeding ₹30,000 crore, to ensure Indian farmers get access to the nutrient at low cost. “But my condition to anyone who was interested in licensing it was that nano urea should be made available to farmers at cost, or the lowest price possible,” says Raliya.
Raliya’s patented nano urea in liquid form can be sprayed directly onto the leaves during two key growth stages of a crop instead of chucking the conventional urea in granular form on the soil. A 500 ml bottle of nano urea can replace a 45 kg bag of urea. “Nano urea is like taking an intravenous injection rather than popping a pill. 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 is wasted. It makes the soil acidic and the run-off ends up polluting water bodies,” explains Raliya, who recently quit as IFFCO’s general manager and head of R&D but continues to work as a consultant to the cooperative to help it scale up commercial production of nano urea.
Saving the soil
A form of fertilizer, urea 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 the leaves to meet the crop’s nutritional requirement and also trigger pathways for uptake and assimilation of nitrogen. And it is incredibly cheap too. A bottle of nano urea sells for ₹240 without the need for any government subsidy to keep the price low. In comparison, a subsidised bag of urea sells at nearly ₹270 with the actual market price close to ₹2,600.
India uses about 60 million tonnes of fertilizers annually. The government spends nearly ₹1-lakh crore a year in fertilizer subsidy or roughly ₹7,000 per farmer. This often acts as a perverse incentive for farmers to use them indiscriminately leading to soil infertility, ecological damage and a toxic food chain. Punjab, for instance, uses 246 kg of fertilizer per hectare against the national average of 135 kg.
India also lacks the raw materials to manufacture fertilizers on a large scale. Oil and gas needed to make them are scarce. Russia and Ukraine are key suppliers of fertilizer feedstock to India. This year, the war in Ukraine has sent urea prices soaring to nearly ₹3,000 a bag.
Liquid nano urea can replace nearly 14 million tonnes of subsidised urea saving the country close to $40 billion in imports and also significantly reducing logistics and warehousing costs. All-India trials on nearly 40 crops at more than 11,000 locations show that nano urea increases crop productivity by up to 24 per cent in grains and 8 per cent in fruits and vegetables.
Popularising the adoption of nano urea to eventually phase out the conventional granular fertilizers has become one of the cornerstones of the Government’s agriculture policy.
IFFCO from its plant has already produced more than 3.6 crore bottles of nano urea and sold nearly 3 crore bottles to farmers. The Government will spend ₹3,000 crore to build 11 more plants across India in the next two years to produce 44 crore bottles of nano urea or roughly 20 million tonnes of conventional urea.
Getting the government’s gaze
Raliya began working on ways to synthesise nano particles in 2009 when pursuing his PhD at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, part of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), and completed its development for use on industrial scale at Washington University, St Louis, US, during his stint there as a research scientist with its Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering.
Softspoken Raliya’s deep sense of public service and intense patriotism are evident even in a short conversation. Not just licensing nano urea for free, Raliya, when appointed an adjunct faculty at IIT Delhi’s Centre for Rural Development and Technology for one year, refused any pay. “This is an honour for me to contribute to our country, so I will contribute at zero charge,” he wrote to the institute.
If research in the lab requires great perseverance for nature to yield her secrets, coaxing the government machinery to utilise an innovation in public good can prove equally hard. In a 2015 letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Raliya described his research work at Washington University and the benefits it could bring to Indian farmers. He said he would be happy to make it available for free in public interest. 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 leading scientists, top officials in the agriculture and fertilizer ministries and experts.
Convinced about Raliya’s product after visits to his lab and trial fields in St Louis, the government linked him up with the Fertilizer Association of India and several large private sector firms in the agri and biosciences sectors. Several large firms were keen to commercialise nano urea but refused to give him any say in the pricing of the product.
IFFCO, as a co-operative owned by farmers, assured him that it would sell it to farmers at the lowest possible margins. In 2019, Raliya shifted base to India, joined IFFCO and set up a nanotechnology R&D centre at Gandhinagar and helped set up the first nano urea plant at Kalol that was inaugurated by the PM in May 2022.
For a brighter future
But for a young man who could have made 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 firsthand. 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 the country,” says Raliya.
Nano urea is the result of one of the many patents Raliya has to his name. According to Raliya, his two other patents relating to synthesising nano calcium carbonate, which could be for cancer what insulin is to diabetes, and biosynthesis of nano nitrogen particles from fungi, respectively, could have far bigger commercial and societal relevance than even nano urea.