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Agriculture

To Tackle Stubble Burning, Governments Have Repeatedly Chosen Ineffective Routes

If policy makers want to see the end of the stubble burning, they have to shed their political differences and come up with a road map which factors in the inability of farmers to bear straw management costs.

The year was 2019, and farmers where once again being blamed for air pollution in Delhi. As is the practice, Supreme Court took cognisance of the air pollution issue and summoned the Chief Secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to know about steps taken by them to reduce pollution in the Delhi National Capital Region.

With the Chief Secretaries in attendance, the Supreme Court directed the state governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to provide Rs 100 per quintal financial assistance to small and marginal farmers for managing paddy stubble.

Following the direction, the Punjab and Haryana government attempted to pay lip service but it was half hearted. In 2019, the Punjab government provided financial assistance of Rs 28.51 crore to only 31,231 farmers and the Haryana government provided financial assistance amounting to Rs 1.63 crore to 3,930 farmers last year.

On February 28, 2020, the Supreme Court perused the counter affidavit dated February 26, 2020, filed on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, which stated the following:

“[A]s far as providing incentive of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy produced to those farmers who will not burn paddy residue is concerned, the issue has been earlier examined in consultation with the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) and found that the inclusion of cost of stubble removal in the MSP may not be a viable option as it will not help those farmers who are not getting the benefit of MSP and also create price distortion in the market. The issue has been suitably clarified to the Government of Punjab. Any such incentives, if at all necessary, should be provided by the State Governments from their own budget as has been done during the last year by the Government of Punjab and Haryana.”

Also read: As Delhi Gears up for Stubble Burning Season, What Are the Plans To Limit Pollution?

So, in February 2020, the Union government had stated that it will not be a part of the financial assistance of Rs 100 per quintal to farmers who are not burning paddy straw.

The policy thus became clear that the Union will entirely bank on the Crop Residue Management (CRM) Scheme introduced in 2018-2019, which promotes management of crop residue by retention or incorporation into the soil or collection for further utilisation through the use of appropriate mechanisation inputs.

CRM also encourages the use of farm machinery banks, through which farmers can rent straw management machines.

A farmer burns paddy waste stubble in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Credit: Reuters

The goal of this scheme is to create awareness among stakeholders through demonstration, capacity building activities and differentiated information, education and communication strategies for effective utilisation and management of crop residue.

Member of Environment Pollution (Preservation & Control) Authority for the National Capital Region (EPCA), Sunita Narain, stated on record that farmers should not be incentivised to stop stubble burning, and that a better approach is that farmers should be given free machinery or a mechanism should be put in place, through which stubble is purchased from the farmers. “An incentive for not burning stubble is a perverse incentive. This has been our view for the last three years,” she said.

Under the CRM scheme, farmers are provided financial assistance of 50% for straw management machines and 80% subsidy is provided for farmer producer organisations, co-operative societies and panchayats to establish custom hiring centres. Farmers can buy smart seeders, happy seeders, super seeders, super straw management machines, rotavators, bailers, choppers, mulchers, and other machines under the CRM scheme.

During the period from 2018-19 to 2021-22, Rs 2,440.07 crores  have been released.

Punjab got Rs. 1147.62 crores, Haryana received Rs. 693.25 crores, Uttar Pradesh got Rs. 533.67 crores, the NCT of Delhi got Rs. 4.52 Crores and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research got Rs. 61.01 crores.

During the current year, so far, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and ICAR have received Rs 240.00 crores, Rs. 191.53 crores, Rs. 154.29 crores and Rs. 14.18 crores.

Also read: The Govt Has Spent Crores But Failed to Find a Viable Alternative to Stubble Burning in Punjab

During the last four years, more than 2.07 lakh machines – including more than 3,243 balers and rakes which are used for ex-situ collection of straw – were distributed to individual farmers and to more than 38,000 agriculture machinery custom hiring centres in these four states (including Delhi).

In line with the Supreme Court’s directions of November 6, 2019, this season, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) governments in Punjab and Delhi proposed a scheme that would give Punjab’s farmers Rs 2,500 per acre as an incentive for not burning crop residue.

Under this scheme Punjab and Delhi government would have pitched in Rs 500 per quintal, and the Union government would have contributed Rs 1500 per quintal.

The total cost would have been around Rs 1,875 crore, with Punjab and Delhi government’s share coming to Rs 375 crore each, and the Union government’s share amounting to Rs 1,125 crores. But this proposal was refused by the Union government.

With this approach, this season, Punjab relied on 1.07 lakh machines to manage the 220 lakh tons of paddy straw generated in the state, and Haryana had a total of 72,777 machines to manage the paddy stubble.

Did this approach work or not?

Punjab recorded 71,304 fire incidents in 2021; 76,590 in 2020; 55,210 in 2019; 50,590 in 2018; 45,384 in 2017; and 81,042 in 2016, and as of November 15, 2022, Punjab has already recorded more than 45,000 farm fires this year. The number is likely go up as 10-15% of paddy stubble is still lying in the fields.

A report titled ‘Impact assessment study of central sector scheme for promotion of agricultural mechanisation for in-situ paddy stubble management in Punjab’, funded by the state department of agriculture and farm welfare in 2020- 21, interacted with 2,160 farmers. As many as 1,320 of them were using straw management machines, and 840 farmers were not.

Also read: Why Rising Diesel Prices Could Lead to More Stubble Burning

This report stated that 97% of these farmers had said that straw management machines require high-powered tractors, which small farmers cannot afford. More than 80% reported shortage of tractors, machinery and skilled manpower to operate them. During the study it was found that only a small proportion of farmers could avail themselves of the subsidy on stubble management machinery. Only 14.3% respondents applied for the subsidy, and 10% could obtain it.

Most farmers who adopted straw management machines found that machines are overpriced, which dilute the benefits of subsidies.

This data suggests that despite booking farmers, and making red entries in their records, the approach of flooding Punjab with machinery is not working. While farmers have been asking governments for financial assistance, the entire emphasis has been on flooding Punjab with more machines, which many reports claim are being underused.

On the other hand, if we look at the figures of farm fires in Haryana, we see that they have dipped by 45% this year. As on November 15, Haryana recorded 3,149 incidents of stubble burning, compared to 5,724 last year.

One of the main reasons in the drop in farm fires in Haryana can be attributed to the fact that Haryana is providing an incentive of Rs 1,000 per acre to those farmers who do not burn stubble. Besides this, a Rs 50 per quintal incentive is also being given to the farmers for making stubble bales.

It is high time the governments understand that farmers are unable to bear the operating costs of machines. Despite the subsidy on straw management machines, with the increased costs of fuel and labour, small and the marginal farmers are in no state to own or rent the machines.

If policy makers want to see the end of the stubble burning, they have to shed their political differences and come out with a road map which factors in the inability of farmers to bear straw management costs. The Supreme Court’s 2019 direction which provides financial assistance of Rs 100 per quintal to farmers who are not burning paddy straw is a very good start.

Ramandeep Singh Mann is an agriculture policy expert and tweets @ramanmann1974.