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NEW DELHI : In early November, as the national capital was gearing up for its annual encounter with toxic smog, Bhupinder Singh, a farmer from Sangrur, Punjab, had to make a swift decision. He had to decide whether to spend 60,000 to remove the paddy stubble, which was left over after the rice harvest on his 15 acres of cropland, or simply set it alight. The matchstick was the obvious choice.

“I also care for the environment, but how can I spend more than 60,000 in one go?" asks Bhupinder Singh. Apart from the price tag, there was also a practical reason. “These machines (used for crop residue management) need a more powerful tractor than what I own. Plus, diesel is so expensive," Singh added.

Ever since India celebrated the festival of lights, Diwali, on 4 November, Delhi and the entire Gangetic plains have been engulfed in a thick blanket of smog. Stubble burning by farmers in states such as Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh is just one of many proximate causes. The Supreme Court too acknowledged this fact while directing the government to consider a temporary lockdown on Saturday.

Smog season
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Smog season

“It has become (a) fashion to bash farmers," the court observed. “In Delhi, there was (a) ban imposed on firecrackers. What’s been happening in (the) last seven days?" the court asked.

Going by data from the ministry of earth sciences, the contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s air pollution load rose from 8% on 3 November to 48% on 7 November. On Friday, the share of crop residue burning came at 35%. This is likely to spike as more farmers set their fields to fire through November since harvests are delayed due to late rains this year.

Between 1 September and 10 November, Punjab and Haryana witnessed 67,000 instances of open fires. For years, national and state governments have proposed a variety of solutions to stop the practice of stubble burning. But nothing seems to be working, at least at a scale that may show results.

For over three decades, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have been burning the paddy stubble—the practice was even promoted among farmers once—but Delhi has woken up to its effects only in the past few years. The practice started with mechanization, as farmers took to using combine harvesters to harvest their paddy crop. These giant machines are faster and cheaper than hiring labourers. On the flip side, however, the machines leave foot-long paddy stubbles on the field. For farmers, it is convenient—and importantly, cheap—to put fire to the harvested field before planting the next crop: wheat.

The root causes

In 2009, in a bid to save its rapidly declining groundwater levels, the Punjab government made a law that barred farmers from planting paddy before the dates notified in late May or early June. This was done to time plantings to the arrival of the annual monsoon. This enforced delay in planting pushed the date of harvest to November, which meant farmers had to quickly clear their fields to plant wheat. A delay means lower yields. Due to this short window— of just two weeks between the two crops—farmers took to burning the crop residue in larger numbers. The delay in harvest also meant that the stubble is burnt just when the wind direction changes in late October-mid November, which carries the smoke all over the northern Gangetic plains.

Meanwhile, several solutions have been proposed, such as using machines to incorporate crop residues into the soil or harvesting the straw for use as boiler fuel or for manufacturing packaging materials. While the second option is limited by the number of biofuel plants—less than 6% of the paddy straw is currently harvested for this purpose—incorporating crop residues back into the soil is facing a severe challenge due to the rising cost of diesel and rent for the necessary machines. A farmer has to choose between spending more than 6,500 per hectare for in-situ straw management or a matchstick.

A less talked about solution is to find an alternative to the paddy-wheat cycle. If farmers took to growing pulses or oilseeds, instead of paddy, the problem could be solved to a large extent. But farmers are unwilling to move away from paddy since they can sell their entire produce to the government at assured support prices while growing pulses or oilseeds entails significant price risks.

The problem of paddy stubble was created by machines. And a machine-led solution to it has failed to solve the problem, said Balwinder Sidhu, member-secretary at the Punjab Farmer’s Commission. “Instead, it is only benefitting manufacturers who have raised the prices (of crop management machines) to corner government subsidies."

Besides, Delhi has its own problems to rectify. In the early phase of winter this year, motorized vehicles contributed to over half of the city’s particulate pollution, showed a new study by the environment thinktank Centre for Science and Environment. The palpable apathy of national and state governments to keep air pollution in check is despite the reality that nearly 18% of all deaths in India (1.67 million) were attributed to polluted air, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

Protest burning

Despite several years of effort by various arms of the government, farm fires spiked in 2020, notes a research brief on stubble burning by the Delhi-based Council on Energy Environment and Water (CEEW).

The report published in October flagged some critical bottlenecks in dissuading farmers from burning stubble. Firstly, despite urging farmers to move away towards a diversified crop basket, paddy continues to dominate the Kharif crop season.

Secondly, Punjab now has more than 76,000 crop residue management machines but a majority of these are under-utilised as farmers fear a decline in productivity if these machines (happy seeder and super seeder) are used to incorporate stubble into the field and plant wheat simultaneously. More importantly, rising prices of diesel pushed up the operational cost of using these machines by 5-8% in 2021 compared to 2019.

Harvesting paddy stubble and using it as biofuel is currently limited to 1 million tonnes of straw—less than 6% of the total volumes generated during the Karif season. Lack of supply chain actors like biomass aggregators, processors, and storage facilities have made the existing ex-situ ecosystem a laggard, the study said. It added that “the prevailing sentiments due to the recent agricultural reforms have had an undesired impact on stubble burning." Some farmers seem to be putting their fields on fire as a mark of protest.

The rising cost of diesel is another major reason why farmers are unwilling to use super seeders. According to the CEEW brief, fuel accounts for a quarter of the cost of operating these machines.

“In our interactions, we found that most farmers recognize that stubble burning is damaging to soil health due to destruction of nutrients," said Srish Prakash, a researcher at CEEW. “But using machines is expensive and one bad experience dissuades them from using them again. A way out is to provide cash incentives to farmers to cover (the) rising cost of fuel."

However, a proposal to provide farmers with a cash incentive of 100 per quintal of paddy was discarded in 2020 by a Union government-appointed committee, whose mandate is to prevent and control pollution in the national capital region. In its report published in September last year, the committee called it a “perverse incentive" but said that state governments can provide the money from their own budgets.

“After the introduction of the subsidy, the cost of machines used to manage stubble has increased significantly (a super-seeder now costs 2,40,000, compared to 1,80,000 a year back)," said Ravneet Brar, a farmer from Muktsar, Punjab, and spokesperson of Bhartiya Kisan Union, Kadian. Brar added that this season, the rising price of fertilisers due to a shortage has already put a dent in farmer incomes. In effect, there will be no respite from stubble burning at least this November.

November headache

Under the central scheme of agri-mechanization for managing crop residues, over 2,200 crore has been spent in the past four years. The subsidies range between 50-80% for the purchase of new machines. However, most farmers would have preferred harvesting of the residue to generate power but too few plants are in operation.

“If the government agrees to purchase power generated from bio-mass, we are willing to set up more plants," said Pawanpreet Singh Dhillon, promoter and director at SAEL, a bio-energy company. According to Dhillon, the government machinery is more focused on promoting subsidised machines despite significant costs borne by farmers for in-situ management.

“We are currently using a million tonne of paddy straw collected from north Indian states to generate 100 megawatts of power. In areas where we operate, there is almost no crop residue burning. By scaling up biomass-based power generation to 1,000MW in a year, the problem of stubble burning in northern India can be remedied significantly," Dhillon said.

He added that discoms have to pay a bit extra for biomass-based renewable energy for the sake of clean air. “But every year, we discuss the problem in November and then forget it till next year. There is a total lack of policy foresight."

Earlier this year, states and the central government allowed sugar and paper mills to use crop residues in their boilers. Thermal power plants were also allowed to use biomass pellets along with coal to generate electricity. But these steps are yet to show any discernible impact on air quality.

Among the many solutions proposed was a bio-decomposer which failed to take off as it took close to a month to decompose the crop residue. But more importantly, very few are talking of a long-term solution that could provide farmers an alternative to the water-intensive rice cultivation in Punjab and Haryana. For instance, farmers can possibly grow pulses like masoor and oilseeds like groundnut but they will do so only if assured of government purchase at support prices.

To begin with, 25% diversification away from paddy is absolutely critical, not only to save aquifers and biodiversity but also to reduce the amount of paddy straw generated, said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj and a former head of the Punjab State Farmer’s Commission.

According to Jakhar, the state government-run cooperative MARKFED can stop the procurement of food grains for central agencies and focus on its original mandate of marketing farmers’ produce. “It could enter into contract farming with farmers for oilseeds to improve supplies where India is deficient. The central food ministry can pitch in with funds (that are required) for the initiative to stabilize and succeed."

To be sure though, that’s not an easy task and certainly not one that can be wrapped up by this November.

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