Stubble burning: Farmers not alone in blame

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Burning paddy stubble in Amritsar.Although it may seem ironic, the problem of stubble burning, when farmers put their harvested fields on fire, emerged only in the 1980s when mechanised harvesting combines were introduced in the country. Now recognised as one of the major contributory factors behind the heavy smog in northern India at the advent of winters, stubble burning takes place between November 1 and 15 in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

 The dates are important because that is the period during which the farmers have to sow the wheat crop after harvesting paddy. The government has mandated that the wheat crop must be down before November 15 so that it receives rainfall and sunshine in good measure which would help in a good harvest. The crucial time for the wheat crop to mature is during mid-April, when the temperature is about 35 degree celsius. For the wheat crop to reach full maturity and give maximum yield by then, farmers have no option but to sow the crop latest by November 15, so that it grows for a full 140-150 day duration.

The short gap between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat leaves little time for the farmers. The spike in stubble burning is also blamed on the PUSA variety of rice, which is harvested late. With the introduction of Combine Harvesters, which are rented by marginal farmers, the fields are left with four to six inches long stubble which impedes sowing of seeds. The paddy stubble, unlike the wheat stubble, is hard and sharp which cannot be eaten by cattle. Employing labour to cut the stubble manually is a costly affair for the marginal farmers. The easy option is to set the fields on fire to burn the stubble. Besides causing pollution, stubble burning deprives the soil of nutrients.

Over the years the satellite pictures by National Aeronautical Space Agency have shown thousands of fields on fire during the period. Governments had stepped in to first warn the farmers against putting their fields on fire and had later announced imposition of fine for those who indulge in it. However, the fines have not deterred farmers from setting fires. Also, the state governments have been conveniently looking the other way so as not to annoy the very significant vote bank of the farming community.

The result is that every year in late October and early November smog covers huge tracts of north India spreading from Lucknow and beyond to Punjab and even across the border to Pakistan’s Punjab. Delhi and the areas around it are one of the worstaffected due to other contributory factors like pollution from large number of vehicles, thermal plants and other sources of pollution besides the fact that weather conditions, including lack of rainfall, worsens the situation.Every year during this period the issue of pollution takes priority over other issues and is forgotten as soon as the smog settles down after a brief spell of rainfall.

This year, as per some reports, the situation was worsened by a “multi-day dust storm” over distant Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These reports were based on a study conducted by the System of Air Quality And Weather Forecasting and Research under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences and India Meteorological Department. The study has claimed that about 40 per cent of pollution over north India was caused by these dust storms while stubble burning in Delhi’s neighbouring states contributed 25 per cent and local sources added 35 per cent to the pollution levels in November.

This may be an additional contributory factor this year but there is little doubt that stubble burning is the major culprit. In Punjab alone, about three million acres are cultivated for paddy and 20 million tonnes of stubble generated every year. The state government took some measures to check the smoke from the country’s food bowl such as fining farmers who were found setting fields afire up to Rs 5,000. Punjab government data shows 2,338 farmers were fined and Rs 65.92 lakh collected in fines. But there is political pressure against taking drastic steps against such farmers.

Recently, as Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal was grappling with the problem of pollution and was meeting Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, his party’s senior leader in Punjab, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, was getting photographed for burning fields in a symbolic gesture with farmers. Khaira, who is also the Leader of Opposition in Punjab Assembly, said the protest was against the Congress government “which is harassing the farmers on the stubble burning issues”. Khaira said that rather than filing FIRs against farmers for burning crop, the state government should provide equipment and machinery on rent to dispose the stubble.

He said the state government had failed to carry out the instructions of National Green Tribunal on the issue and farmers were suffering huge losses and committing suicide. He also pointed out that if farmers were to plough the paddy stubble into the fields, it would cost them Rs 4,000-5,000 per acre which was a huge burden on them. He demanded that the state government must compensate them.

Even Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who had declined to meet his Delhi counterpart, said that “farmers cannot be expected to give up crop residue burning completely” till they are provided viable solutions. He insisted that the state government could not fund the incentives needed to encourage farmers and suggested that central funds should be earmarked for the purpose. His suggestion was shot down by Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan who said that states should “learn” to prioritise their spending.

Filing FIRs and imposing fines on farmers is obviously not going to succeed. There would be several parties and leaders always ready to literally add fuel to the fire. Also it is important to consider the genuine problems faced by farmers. A Delhi based think-tank, Indicus Foundation, in a recent report, pointed out that it was “impossible” to effectively ban stubble burning. Instead, it suggested the government should focus on discouraging paddy cultivation. That recommendation appears impractical but surely the governments must get the experts to suggest ways out of the problem.

Among the alternatives being suggested by experts is the introduction in large numbers of the Turbo Happy Seeder (THS). The innovative machine not only cuts the stubble but simultaneously drills wheat seeds in the soil. It can be used along with Combine Harvesters to prepare the fields and sow seeds. The governments should subside or even set up an agency to provide such a service.

Among other ways to deal with the problem is to convert stubble into fuel pellets. The Union Energy Minister recently announced that steps would be taken to use such pellets as fuel in thermal power plants. In another initiative, Punjab Government recently signed a MoU with a Chennai-based firm to set up 400 plants to convert crop residue into bio-energy. A government spokesman said the plants will become operational before the next harvesting season.

That is a welcome step. The experts shall have to put their heads together to find a solution. Otherwise the situation would only turn from bad to worse.