A farmer burns wheat stubble in a field following the harvest season, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, on the outskirts of Amritsar, May 2020. Photo: PTI.
In Punjab and Haryana, the paddy crop is usually harvested between the first and last weeks of October. Farmers then sow the wheat crop from the first week of November until the middle of December.
These farmers regularly complain about the menace of rice straw – a product of mechanised agriculture – exacerbated by shortage of labour and lack of time. When paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher, the machine leaves behind a significant length of straw and stubble on the field. This prevents other machines from sowing wheat seeds. With only 10-15 days between the rice-harvesting season and the wheat-sowing time, farmers often burn the stubble to quickly eliminate the paddy stubble. According to some estimates, farmers burned about 11 million tonnes of stubble in Punjab and Haryana, out of the 27 million tonnes of paddy stubble produced last year. The numbers are likely to be similar this year.
This way is very easy for them – but the huge clouds of smoke that rise up blow into Delhi, contributing significantly to the national capital’s notorious wintertime air pollution.
Apart from contributing to air pollution, stubble-burning deteriorates the soil’s organic content, essential nutrients and microbial activity – which together will reduce the soil’s long-term productivity. Stubble burning has been prohibited or discouraged in many countries, including China, the UK and Australia. In India, although both the Centre and state governments have encouraged alternatives, for example by promoting the use of new machines and technologies, farmers have been reluctant to adopt them.
Instead, they find the traditional way of stubble-burning to be easier, low cost and time-efficient, compared to alternatives that demand more time, investment and labour.
If farmers wish to remove stubble manually, they will need at least Rs 6,000-7,000 per acre. To reduce these costs, as well as save labour and time, the Government of Punjab distributed 24,000 tractor-mounted ‘happy seeders’ to cut down the rice stubble and sow wheat seeds simultaneously. To use a ‘happy seeder’ over one acre, farmers have to spend Rs 1,000 for rent plus about Rs 2,000 on diesel.
Even when farmers have expressed a willingness to adopt happy seeders, availability and suitability have been important issues. A single happy seeder covers 10 acre in a day. Punjab state requires 50,000 happy seeders to clear its 75 lakh acres of paddy fields in 15 days, but the government only distributed 24,000. In addition, farmers have also complained about problems while sowing and low germination of wheat seeds, when sown with ‘happy seeders’. Many machines have been dumped only after two years of use.
Officials have also advertised a machine called a straw baler – to compress crop residue into compact bales – to bale rice stubbles and moving them out of the field. But it flopped because the machine takes an hour for every acre, typically producing 12-15 quintals of bales. Earlier, baler-owners would provide their services free of cost and would make up for their time and labour by selling the bales to biomass factories nearby. However, this year, they are charging Rs 1,000-1,500 per acre. The state government may arrange to procure the stubble, along with paddy grain, by hiring balers to work for free for the farmers. The stubbles can then be sold to biomass-based power plants, paper mills and cardboard factories.
Another machine is the paddy straw chopper-cum-spreader – to chop paddy straw left behind on mechanically harvested paddy fields. It chops the straw into pieces and spreads it around the field in a single operation, so wheat-sowing becomes easy. It is a mounted-type machine and can be operated by a tractor with 45-50 HP or more.
Yet another alternative is the accelerated straw decomposition process. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has developed a solution it has named ‘Pusa’, which can decompose crop residue into manure by accelerating the decomposition process. These agents act on the straw to make it soft and ploughable, break down its molecular components and release the nutrients into the field. As a result, Pusa may reduce the use and cost of fertilisers and could help increase the yield of the subsequent crop. It costs less than Rs 1,000 per acre.
A third option is to convert stubble into biochar, which can be used as a fertiliser, by burning it in a kiln. For this purpose, a kiln has to be 10 ft wide and 14 ft high, and be able to accommodate 12 quintals of rice straw and convert it into 6.5 quintals of biochar in 10-12 hours.
In the longer term, another way to reduce stubble burning is to replace long-duration paddy varieties with shorter duration varieties like Pusa Basmati-1509 and PR-126, which can be harvested in the third week of September itself. This will widen the window between the end of the rice season and start of the wheat season, allowing enough time for the paddy stubble to decompose, and eliminate the need for stubble-burning.
Apart from all this, the state government needs to popularise the traditional use of paddy straw and stubble as fodder and as part of feed-mixture preparations. This can happen locally as well as can be stored and transported to deficit areas like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, by developing the fodder and feed markets.
Incentives to adopt alternative technologies
The Punjab government has resolved to make the state a zero stubble-burning zone. To this end, it offers a 50% subsidy on machines for individual farmers and 80% for cooperative societies and farmers’ groups. Last year, the governments of Punjab and Haryana also announced a bonus of Rs 2,500 per acre for small and marginal farmers. If the bonus is given directly to farmers, it could compensate the expenses incurred by avoiding stubble-burning. However, some farmers have said that most farmers don’t receive the bonus of Rs 2,500 per acre.
Last year, the Supreme Court asked the Punjab and Haryana governments to provide Rs 100 per quintal to small farmers to manage the stubble; given that the average productivity is 25.6 quintal per acre in Punjab, they may receive about Rs 2,560 per acre. But it seems many farmers don’t receive the amount – even though the government has assigned 8,000 nodal officers to oversee the compensation exercise, to prevent stubble-burning, and to increase awareness of alternate technologies.
Governments have also been punishing farmers using monetary penalties for stubble-burning. Last year, over 52,000 farm fires were reported in Punjab alone after the paddy harvest season. In over 23,000 cases, an environmental fine was imposed on farmers, and ‘red entries’ were made against their land records. Errant farmers were together reportedly fined Rs 6.1 crore. However, they have deposited only Rs 1 lakh thus far. Collecting fines from farmers is difficult, but more importantly doing so creates a hostile environment for local agricultural development functionaries.
Farmers have a tough time unlearning the age-old practice of stubble-burning. Alternatives to stubble burning are not popular because they impose additional operational expenses, often from the farmer’s pocket. On the other hand, stubble-burning only requires a matchbox. Further, most of the custom hiring centres are also unwilling to purchase these machinery upfront – as they can be operated only for 15 days in a year, after which they have no use.
In sum, the government has to either increase monetary incentives or offer technologies and policies that don’t require farmers to spend even more. It seems that imposing penalties only makes the problem harder to solve.
There are multiple alternatives to stubble burning, and farmers can choose between the technologies and machines most suited to their particular local conditions, with the objective of ‘no burning’. The government should play the part of an enabler by spreading awareness about the pros and cons of each option, so as to eliminate confusion and ease the adoption of new technologies by removing socio-economic barriers. For this, the state governments can rope in block-level agricultural officers and officials of agricultural produce market committees to develop and implement comprehensive ‘no burning’ strategies at the local level.
A. Amarender Reddy is the principal scientist at the ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture. The views expressed here are the author’s own.