Will north India breathe easy this November?

A file photo of stubble burning. The burning has already started in Punjab, with 192 burning events recorded as of 1 October. Photo: HT
A file photo of stubble burning. The burning has already started in Punjab, with 192 burning events recorded as of 1 October. Photo: HT


  • Crop residue management machines are doing the rounds. But, there are barriers to adoption.

In a few weeks from now, Hardeep Singh, a farmer from Bhadla village in Ludhiana district, will sow wheat across his 15 acres. But before he can do that, he needs to rid the fields of paddy residue from the previous cycle.

Singh always burns such residue.

Two years ago, he keenly watched a couple of farmers from his village experiment with happy seeders—a tractor-mounted machine that cuts paddy straws and deposits them (as mulch) over the sown area. These machines were promoted as an alternative to burning the residue.

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He didn’t feel encouraged to use them. The fields of wheat faced attacks from rodents and insects such as the pink stem borer. The mulch layer deposited by the machines provided shelter to the rodents. The mulch also increased the soil temperature, making it ideal for pink stem borers to hatch eggs.

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Renting a second variation of the crop residue management (CRM) machine isn’t easy either. Super seeders, which cuts the paddy straws and incorporate them in the soil (as opposed to depositing them over the sown area), require bigger tractors of over 60 horsepower. They consume more fuel, and are costlier, too.

This year, Singh saw smart seeders—an upgraded version with features of both the happy seeder and the super seeder—being trialled.

“A tractor of 50-55 horsepower will be sufficient for it. And the technicians suggested us to use pesticides along with urea beforehand (to take care of the pest issue). Unlike happy seeders, the straws are properly mixed and pressed into the soil. I was happy with the results and am looking forward to rent it from the farmer society this season," Singh said.

The choice farmers like Singh make this season would determine how smoggy November is in the Indo-Gangetic plains, including the national capital. Stubble burning has already started in Punjab, with 192 burning events recorded as of 1 October, as per the Consortium for Research on Agroecosystem Monitoring and Modeling from Space (CREAMS), a research initiative from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. While residue burning begins in late September itself, it picks up pace in the latter half of October. The first and second weeks of November are the worst. The burning events subside by November-end, data from CREAMS suggests.

The contribution of stubble burning in Delhi’s air pollution during the first week of November can go beyond 50%, shows data from System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), a research initiative of the ministry of earth sciences.

Punjab is the most critical state when it comes to stubble burning. Of the 92,047 fire events recorded across six states (Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi) between 15 September and 30 November 2021 by CREAMS, more than three-fourths were recorded in the land of five rivers.

While those living in the towns and cities of north India will hope more and more farmers use CRM machines, there are many barriers. Do the economics work?

The cost equation

I have been using happy seeders for the last two-three years," Malkit Singh, another farmer from Ludhiana district, said. He cultivates paddy and wheat on seven-eight acres.

If farmers rent a happy seeder to prepare the field for the next crop (wheat), after harvesting paddy, it can cost 1,000 per acre, said Singh. If they rent it along with a tractor, the cost could go up to 2,500 per acre. It would be at least 1,000 more if they opt for a super seeder, he added.

However, the costs incurred on using these machines are not significantly different from the traditional method of burning the stubble—before sowing, there is money to be spent on preparing the field after the residue is burnt. That expenditure would approximately be 4,000-5,000 per acre if one rents a tractor along with the necessary tools, Malkit Singh said.

Singh’s estimate seems high but the cost of field preparation depends upon local agro-climatic or soil conditions. In certain cases, the soil becomes hard upon stubble burning and may require extensive tilling with multiple operations by a tractor. That increases fuel cost, said Mohit Sharma, a researcher at CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development (CII-ITC CESD), a research institution.

The loss of soil nutrients, necessitating a greater use of fertilizers, is another long-term cost for farmers.

A recent report by CII-ITC CESD, whose lead author is Sharma, also estimates the cost of field preparation in case of residue burning to be comparable to that of management with machines. The farmers who burnt their residue spent around 2,900 in 2020. In comparison, those who opted for machines spent in the range of 3,200-3,600, depending on the method of residue management. The survey was conducted among about 1,800 farmers across 172 villages in Punjab and Haryana. The survey also showed improved wheat yield and reduced diesel consumption for those who opted for management with machines.

So, if renting the machines is not particularly heavy on the pocket and is also environmentally favourable, why are farmers not adopting them?

Not enough machines?

More than 50% of paddy straw produced in Punjab were burnt in 2020. At 71,304, the number of fire events reported between 15 September and 30 November in the state continued to be high even last year, only slightly lower than 83,002 during the same period in 2020.

The farmers of Punjab are well aware that residue burning harms their lungs as well as impacts the soil quality.

“Farmers are not burning stubble for benefits. They are doing it out of compulsion," Malkit Singh said, citing the unavailability of CRM machines. They are expensive too, if farmers were to buy them rather than rent.

The market cost of super seeders is around 2-3 lakh, and that of happy seeders is 1.5-2 lakh. In addition, these machines do not have utility beyond the October-November season. Farmers, therefore, have less incentive to purchase them, unlike tractors or other farm equipment.

The union government made these machines available at a subsidized price from 2018-19. The rate of subsidy is 80% for cooperatives, farmer societies or panchayats, and 50% for individual farmers.

Despite the subsidy, the access to machines is limited. In Singh’s village, for instance, there are two-three happy or smart seeders and two super seeders. But, these machines are often shared among multiple villages. This limits their timely availability. Farmers in Punjab have a rather short window of 10-12 days to clear and prepare the fields for sowing of wheat, once paddy is harvested.

During 2018-19 and 2021-22, the Punjab government deployed 13,540 happy seeders and 26,305 super seeders. Overall, 90,442 CRM machines, which include mulchers, zero till drills, rotavators along with happy or super seeders have been distributed during this period. Another 32,000 machines will be deployed this season, informed Gurvinder Singh, director of agriculture, Punjab. This would mean an availability of around 10 CRM machines per village.

Singh does not believe that availability of machines is an issue, as these machines, on an average, can individually cover 80-90 acre of land in 15 days. If Singh’s estimate is accurate, these machines would have been sufficient for the entire paddy area of 70-75 lakh acre last year itself (assuming a maximum utilization with minimal loss in transportation and logistics). By this year, the coverage should be easily achieved.

Needed: mindset pivot

Like Hardeep Singh hinted, not all machines are equally preferred by farmers. Their preference changes with time, and word-of-mouth by fellow farmers greatly influences the choice.

Happy seeders were introduced about five years ago in Punjab. The government deployed a substantial number of them in 2018-19 and 2019-20—the number dipped in the last two years.

“Many farmers in my village complained of sundhi (pink stem borers) after using happy seeders. This caused an increase in the cost of pesticides and a yield loss for their wheat crops, discouraging them from using the machines in future," said Malkit Singh.

Sukhjit Singh thinks there is a way around. He suggests late sowing of wheat for farmers who face the pest problem, especially in the southern districts of Sangrur and Patiala where the temperature is a couple of degrees higher. Singh, who cultivates 30 acres, has been using various CRM machines since 2018.

Super seeders, meanwhile, also solve the pest issue. Despite higher fuel consumption, these machines are increasingly preferred by farmers for their superior straw mixing capability, which reduces the chance of pest attacks. However, as mentioned earlier, a super seeder requires tractors of over 60 horsepower, which is less common among Punjab farmers. This makes renting difficult.

Gurvinder Singh thinks that the lack of adoption is more because of psychological barriers than the availability of machines. “Farmers can manage the residue with the machines that are already available," he said. He was referring to conventional machines such as mulchers, rotavators, etc. A combination of these machines is indeed used by farmers to achieve in-situ management, shows the CII-ITC CESD survey, albeit less preferred than happy and super seeders.

CII-ITC CESD researchers also recommend behaviour change communication to alter the mindset and promote sustainable practices. In the 172 villages the researchers have been working, the proportion of crop burning has substantially declined from 51% in 2019 to 13% in 2020, with a corresponding increase in residue management practices. The intervention in these villages included capacity building, support of tools and shared renting model.

Compensation matters

In July, the Delhi and Punjab governments proposed a cash incentive of 2,500 per acre to farmers if they do not burn the residue. Of this, 500 each was proposed as contribution from Delhi and Punjab; 1,500 was requested from the union government, which rejected the proposal. Both Delhi and Punjab are governed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

It’s not yet clear whether the Delhi and Punjab governments would go ahead with a reduced incentive of 1,000. A Delhi government spokesperson told Mint that the plan is “very much" in the pipeline, and the two governments are working on the modalities.

Be that as it may, there is strong demand for “compensation" on the ground. Three farm union leaders from three different districts Mint spoke to were unequivocal in demanding a compensation to the tune of 5,000—double of the proposed 2,500—to compensate farmers for the cost of CRM machines.

The point to ponder upon: introducing a subsidy or incentive is easy; revoking it isn’t. Experts, therefore, suggest more sustainable solutions.

Pusa bio-decomposer, which has been promoted extensively by the Delhi government in the last two years, is being piloted on thousands of acres of land in Punjab this time. Developed by The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the decomposer converts stubble of crops into manure.

However, even thousands of acres are negligible compared to the total sown area for paddy, which is 74 lakh acres. In any case, the decomposition period is 20-25 days, far higher than the window a typical Punjab farmer has.

So, we come to the million-dollar question: what happens to the air in Delhi and the rest of north India this season?

“The improvement so far has been slow, and may only be gradual this year. I hope it was more drastic," said Mohit Sharma.

The National Green Tribunal, in an order passed in 2015, prohibited agricultural residue burning in any part of the national capital region, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Anyone found violating the directions is liable to pay an environmental compensation. But the government has so far been lax, Sukhjit Singh said. “If the government enforces the ban (or challan) strictly, farmers will themselves figure a way out of stubble burning."

Till such time any of this happens, those living in north India must temper their expectations of a cleaner November.

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