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Mint Primer: Our AQI woes: Why farmers still burn stubble

For years, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have burnt the leftover stubble after mechanically harvesting the paddy crop. (PTI)
For years, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have burnt the leftover stubble after mechanically harvesting the paddy crop. (PTI)

Summary

  • A mix of solutions has helped sharply reduce crop stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana

A mix of solutions has helped sharply reduce crop stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. But some still resort to the polluting practice because of a shortage of machines to manage crop residues, causing the air quality index (AQI) to worsen. Mint explains.

Has stubble burning come down?

For years, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have burnt the leftover stubble after mechanically harvesting the paddy crop. They did this due to the short available window between harvesting paddy and planting wheat. The practice contributed to the deteriorating air quality in the national capital region. In the past few years, the Centre and states have been pushing farmers to opt for better solutions. These measures helped to reduce instances of stubble burning. In Punjab, fire events fell from 81,042 in 2016 to 26,341 so far in 2023. In Haryana, the numbers are down from 15,686 in 2016 to 1,857 this year.

Which measures are working?

Farmers are given two options to manage stubble. One, they can use smart seeders or straw choppers to ground the stubble into the field and plant the winter wheat without tilling the soil (known as zero till). The more popular option is to use a baler which cuts and collects the straw into neat rectangular bales. These are used as fuel in industrial boilers and biomass-based power plants. Farmers are provided 50-80% subsidy to purchase equipment for straw management. So far, the centre has spent more than 3,300 crore as financial support to states to wean farmers away from burning stubble.

 

Graphic: Mint
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Graphic: Mint

Why do some farmers still burn stubble?

When farmers are unable to hire a baler (since owning one can cost up to 20 lakh) due to high demand or contact the end-user industry, they tend to put fire to their fields. Farmers are also reluctant to go with zero-till wheat because of high expenses and the fear of reduced yields. But as commercial and industrial use of stubble grows, burning may decrease further.

Will reducing area under paddy help?

Paddy was forced upon Punjab and Haryana during the green revolution when India faced a food shortage. The water-guzzling crop has depleted ground water and reduced soil fertility. But farmers prefer paddy because the harvest is picked up by government agencies at guaranteed support prices. To move to crops like oilseeds and pulses, farmers need a similar purchase assurance. Indeed, there’s no reason farmers from eastern India can’t deliver more paddy for the food subsidy scheme and fix the supply gap.

Will reducing area under paddy help?

Paddy was forced upon Punjab and Haryana during the green revolution when India faced a food shortage. The water-guzzling crop has depleted ground water and reduced soil fertility. But farmers prefer paddy because the harvest is picked up by government agencies at guaranteed support prices. To move to crops like oilseeds and pulses, farmers need a similar purchase assurance. Indeed, there’s no reason farmers from eastern India can’t deliver more paddy for the food subsidy scheme and fix the supply gap.

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