Soil Health is an important indicator of not only agricultural productivity but also environmental contamination from mining and other industrial processes !

Surama Neogi, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Field Officer at Soil and Landuse Survey of India (SLUSI), analyzes and studies soil in any particular area with the help of satellite imagery and toposheets using GIS and Remote Sensing.

Surama talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing a fascination for chemistry and its incredibly diverse applications in agriculture and soil sciences.

For students, GIS and Remote Sensing technologies are making it easier to monitor our environment and verify the ground truth in ways that were not possible earlier !

Surama, can you tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Kolkata. My father was a Mathematics teacher. Since childhood I had great interest in Mathematics and had always wanted to pursue my career in Mathematics. I felt Mathematics is the only subject in which we can carry out even the most critical research with only a pen and a paper. In our childhood, students are often pressurized by their parents to pursue a career in Engineering or Medicine. But I was fortunate that I could choose my own career. Besides, my parents had a great fascination for Indian classical music. So, in my childhood I took lessons in Indian classical music and continued singing till my graduation. As a child, I also took dancing and painting classes. As I grew up and took Science stream after my ICSE exam, I gave priority to academics over extra curricular activities. I became more inclined towards Chemistry than Mathematics and found that Chemistry is the only subject which has got application in each and every sphere of our life. Chemistry is needed for manufacturing our daily items like soap, detergent, medicines, paints, tyres and many more to name a few. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

After my ISC exam I was fully determined to take Chemistry honours and didn’t apply for any other subject. I did my graduation in Chemistry from Calcutta University. 

After my graduation, I didn’t pursue masters in pure Chemistry, but took up a rather off-beat subject. I did my masters in Agricultural Chemistry and Soil Science  from Calcutta University.  At that time I was doing research work on the influence of different forms of Iron and Aluminum on the nature of acidic soils of Darrang district in Assam. 

Acid soils of Assam, representing two soil orders, Entisols and Inceptisols were studied to characterise the nature of acidity in relation to different forms of iron and aluminium. The mean contents of iron and aluminium were extracted by various extracting reagents and were found to be in a descending order as follows : dithionite > oxalate > pyrophosphate > ammonium acetate > KCl.

Different forms of acidity showed significant correlation with pHk, pHk and organic carbon. Different forms Fe and Al are responsible for most of the variations in different forms of soil acidity, but the effect of different forms of Al are more pronounced and directly related with the different forms of acidity. Inceptisols and Entisols in Assam are mostly acidic and dominated by Fe and Al oxide and mixed clay minerals. Soil acidity of such soils are formed on varied parent material and under different climatic conditions depending on the nature of weathering. The production potential, lime requirement and nutrient fixation in these soils are largely dependent on the proportional amount of permanent acidity (isomorphous substitution) and pH-dependent acidity through polymers of Fe and Al, organic acid and low activity clays, but the predominant characteristics of acid soils being the presence of Fe and Al in different forms. However, there is a wide information gap on the nature of acidity in these soils. An investigation was undertaken to evaluate the relationship between nature of soil acidity and different forms of Fe and Al in two Inceptisols and an Entisol of Assam. These acid soils have low base saturation and their productivity potential is low. Keeping this in view our investigation was planned for sound evaluation and management of acid soils of Assam.

I represented this work in several national symposiums and my work got published in the Indian Agriculturist journal. I was the University topper in my masters and received a Gold Medal. I got eligible for the INSPIRE fellowship for pursuing PhD sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology, GoI. I got myself enrolled in the PhD program at the Indian Statistical Institute under Agricultural and Ecological Research Unit (AERU) division. 

I knew a Calcutta University alumnus who was then doing research work in ISI in collaboration with IIT, Kharagpur in AERU division in ISI. His supervisor was also from Calcutta University. He told me to apply in ISI when there is a vacancy. I applied and there after I qualified the exam and joined as an ISI JRF.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I always wanted to do something which excites me. I wanted to pursue my career in Chemistry and gradually found out that this subject has huge applications in agriculture. Plants grow by consuming nutrients from the soil and there are all of 12 chemical elements. If there is a deficiency of any of these nutrients they are supplied from outside in the form of fertilizers which are nothing but synthetically produced chemical compounds. This influenced me to take up Agricultural Chemistry rather than Pure or Applied Chemistry. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my masters, I wanted to do some projects and gain some practical experience before securing a job. I worked as a project assistant on a consultancy project titled “Scientific evaluation of mine closure plan” with reference to sustainable developmental framework of Government of India, in Dongri Buzurg mine in Bhandara district in Nagpur, for 3 months in Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST), Shibpur. 

This project work is based on the analysis of environmental and socio-economic data collected from the manganese mining region.  People residing in the mining area were questioned about the hazards of mining in that area. Air, soil and water samples of the mining area were analyzed to predict the vulnerability of the mining area with the help of statistical analysis. Thus, the project aims at developing an analytical framework for environmental risk assessment, and also, development of biophysical indicators to monitor environmental management program to mitigate environmental risks of mining.

Meanwhile, I applied for a PhD in Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and hereafter joined ISI as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) with an INSPIRE fellowship. There I worked on the impact of Biochar and other soil amendments on carbon sequestration in a rice ecosystem. 

Global warming is a burning problem these days. Carbon sequestration is a process by which we can restore atmospheric carbon into the soil which intern enhances the fertility of the soil. So if we can sequester carbon into the soil then it can not only reduce global warming but also enhance the fertility of the soil. I carried out my research work in ISI and used Biochar as a soil amendment for carbon sequestration. I designed a special kind of drum in which we can carry out pyrolysis of carbon residues like straw and crop residues for preparing Biochar. In  a gist, Biochar is prepared by combustion of crop residues in absence of oxygen. We carried out the pyrolysis of carbon residues in the premises of ISI and prepared Biochar which we applied in rice fields to study carbon sequestration. After a few years this work got published in Journal of Environmental Management ( Impact factor – 6.789) titled ” The impact of biochar on soil carbon sequestration: meta-analytical approach on environmental and economical benefits”.

Meanwhile I got selected as an Assistant Field Officer in the Soil and Land Use Survey of India through the Staff Selection Commission exam. Unfortunately, I had to leave my PhD to join my new job. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break while I was doing my research work in ISI. I took an exam for the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) Selection post and got selected as an Assistant Field Officer in Soil and Landuse Survey of India (SLUSI) department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, GoI. I stood first in my batch and got posted in my hometown Kolkata. I got qualified for 3 Central government jobs at the same time but pursued my career with SLUSI since this field is closely related to my previous research work. I have completed 4years in SLUSI. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Tough competition: In a country like India with such a huge population one has to face tough competition in every shere of their life. 

Challenge 2: 

To cope up with failure: One has to regain confidence after failures and rectify their faults accordingly. 

Challenge 3:

Patience: One has to believe in themself that he/she can also achieve this thing. It’s only a matter of time and hard work.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work as an Assistant Field Officer in the Soil and Landuse Survey of India (SLUSI) department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, GoI. 

My work is to analyze and study any particular area with the help of satellite imagery and toposheets using GIS and Remote Sensing, and to carry out soil surveys in that area for ground truth verification. This information is added to the relevant databases for preparation of soil maps and publication of reports. These reports, which are needed for formulating various schemes and policies related to agriculture, are submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture. 

What are the skills needed for this role? How did you acquire them?

To do this work one needs to have knowledge about GIS and Remote Sensing, as well as a soil science background. 

I have done masters in Agricultural Chemistry and Soil Science. Along with that I have carried out several research works related to soil in IIEST and ISI before joining SLUSI. I have done certifications on GIS and Remote Sensing from ESRI and National Institute of Plant Health Management (NIPHM) after joining SLUSI. 

What’s a typical day like?

I usually reach the office by 9.30 am. A typical day involves generation of spatial data for the preparation of various thematic and fertility maps on a large scale, required for report publication. It also involves discussion with higher officials about various government projects and how to accomplish these within a specified timeframe. 

One thing that I love about this job is that it always involves traveling to new places. Our job involves traveling to very remote areas in India where people generally do not go. We study different types of soil quality and help to improve them by providing information from all kinds of databases related to soil. So we can connect with the real India, the people, and the actual condition they live in. I feel this is actually what we call ground truth verification. 

How does your work benefit society? 

We are a premier organization in soil survey. We develop maps and attributes data on soil and land resources in the natural framework of watersheds at different intensities by undertaking different soil surveys and studies. This is useful in planning developmental programs to serve the needs of the state departments and Ministry, for formulating plans for various government schemes and policies. We have the largest volume of data on soils available both on paper and in digital formats. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In 2020, I was sent to carry out a soil resource mapping survey in Manipur in collaboration with Manipur Remote Sensing Application Center (MARSAC). We stayed in Churachandpur district in Manipur for nearly 2 months. We traversed the whole district in our vehicle as a part of our survey. We observed that the condition of the villagers of Manipur is pathetic. They do not have resources. They mostly grow paddy in their fields. They had to procure vegetables from outside the state at a very high cost. The farmers somehow grow paddy and poppy. The state is covered with forests and timber smuggling is a common nuisance in Manipur. The state was deprived of any Government help for many years. There was a dispute between the Naga and the Kuki tribes and the state was suffering from a civil war for many years. Our department went to Manipur for the first time for a survey and hope that some agricultural policies will be implemented for the people of Manipur based on the database of our survey. This particular tour was my first tour and is very close to me. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My only advice is that do not run after what other students are doing. Find out your own interest and follow your own path. 

Future Plans?

I want to learn more about GIS and Remote Sensing and also about database analytics. I also have plans to complete my unfinished PhD.