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Agriculture

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

In the last four years, a total of Rs 1,050.68 crore was given to Punjab, of which Rs 235 crore was released in the financial year 2021-22; however, the field fires are far from over in the state.

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Chandigarh: Despite the Union government spending over Rs 2,000 crore to tackle stubble burning over the last four years, the issue continues to smother north India, leading to severe dips in air quality in Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Haryana.

In the last four years, a total of Rs 1,050.68 crore was given to Punjab, of which Rs 235 crore was released in the financial year 2021-22; however, the field fires are far from over in the state.

Between November 1 and 7, nearly 22,000 stubble burning cases were reported from across the state, revealed data from Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB). The state had recorded 13,124 stubble burning cases till October 31 – 50% lower than the cases reported till that date last year, claimed state officials.

On November 6, the figure crossed the 35,000 mark with over 5,000 more cases per day.

According to PPCB officials, 62% of the total stubble burning cases in Punjab this year were reported in the last week (between November 1 and 7), leading to ‘poor to severe’ air quality in state.

Delhi too has turned into a gas chamber with air quality in the ‘severe’ category as stubble burning in the region, along with residents defying the Diwali fireworks ban, aggravated pollution levels in the city.

Krunesh Garg, member secretary of the PPCB, told The Wire that stubble burning in Punjab could not be blamed for the pollution levels in Delhi. But the Union Ministry of Earth Science’s air quality monitoring centre, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), revealed on November 6 that stubble fires in Punjab and Haryana contributed to 41% of Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution.

Amid the claims and counter-claims, it is the common man who is suffering and breathing toxic air.

A latest study authored by researchers at The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), Delhi, found that stubble burning had a major health impact on farmers in Punjab. The study tracked 3,000 persons in six villages in Punjab and found that stubble burning significantly reduced lung function and was particularly harmful to women in rural Punjab.

Also read: How Can We Solve the Problem of Stubble Burning?

Why is stubble burning not stopping in Punjab?

Lakhwinder Singh, former professor and head of department of Economics at Punjabi University, said that the solution to stubble burning – a problem that was born out of the mechanisation process – cannot be arrived at by subsiding crop residue machines.

The government is to be blamed for not finding a viable economic model and alternative ways to use stubble, which otherwise is being used as raw material in multiple industries worldwide, he added.

He further explained that the issue of stubble burning was never heard of before because harvesting was being done manually in Punjab. In Haryana, small and marginal farmers still do manual harvesting.

“That is why the number of stubble burning cases are quite less in Haryana than Punjab where all farmers use big harvesting combines to harvest their crops. This is where the problem emerges,” he added.

When harvesting is done manually, there is no issue of managing the stubble as the entire field is cleaned. However, when the crops are harvested with the help of combines, the harvester leaves behind straw. Farmers choose to burn it to prepare the fields for the next crop; disposing it off is a costly alternative for farmers.

A farmer burns wheat stubble in a field following the harvest season, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, on the outskirts of Amritsar, May 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

“This year, farmers were forced to buy the DAP fertiliser in the black market by spending Rs 200-300 per bag due to shortage. It is only adding to the distress of farmers and forcing them to burn stubble, even though they know very well the kind of health hazard the burning is causing to them as well as others,” he said.

Another farm economist Sucha Singh Gill told The Wire that the reduced time window between harvesting of the paddy crop and sowing of the next wheat crop too has amplified stubble burning cases.

Gill said earlier farmers had enough time to manage the stubble. The paddy was sown in May and harvesting was done in September or early October. Farmers had over a month to manage stubble before sowing the next wheat crop.

Later, the state government prohibited paddy sowing before mid-June in order to coincide the irrigation of paddy crops with monsoon so that farmers’ dependence on underground water could be reduced.

“Due to this, paddy harvesting has been extended to the end of October. The farmers then in haste to sow wheat crop, which is ideally sown by mid-November, found it easy to burn stubble in order to clear fields for the next crop,” added Gill.

This is also why farmers are not able to use a ‘bio-decomposer’ as a solution to the stubble burning problem in Punjab.

The bio-decomposer, developed by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, decomposes most of the stubble in the fields but it requires a minimum period of three to four weeks.

Many farmers in Punjab who recently used a decomposer in their fields returned to stubble burning because they could not wait longer as the season of wheat sowing had already begun.

‘Subsidised machines not able to solve the issue’ 

As per the data shared by Punjab agriculture department, in 2019-20, a subsidy to the tune of Rs 241 crore was given to farmers on purchase of 23,068 machines.

In the 2020-21 season, the subsidy went up to Rs 261 crore with which 25,811 farmers bought machines. This year 10,025 farmers have already booked subsidised machines for which a total subsidy of close to Rs 200 crore has been allotted.

The subsidy is 50% of the total machine cost if it is individually purchased; if purchased in a group, the subsidy is as high as 80%.

Manmohan Kalia, joint director at Punjab agriculture department, told The Wire that the stubble residue machines like a super-seeder or a happy seeder machine can plough standing paddy stubble in soil and sow wheat seeds simultaneously.

Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of BKU-Dakonda and also spokesperson of Samyukta Kisan Morcha, said that the fact that stubble burning has not stopped despite hundreds of crores of subsidy is a clear indication that the system of giving machines on subsidies has not worked as a universal solution in Punjab.

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

However, the big farmers with the help of agricultural officers and machine manufacturers enjoy all subsidies, who otherwise could afford the machines without subsidy, while the small and marginal farmers, who constitute 70% of the total farmers in Punjab, are left behind. Sometimes, they are not able to afford the machines even on subsidy.

“It can’t work because the majority of farmers in Punjab are marginal and small. Their financial condition is poor. They are not in a position to buy crop residue machines even on subsidy. Moreover, to run this machine, one needs a bigger tractor costing 7-8 lakh,” Jagmohan said.

He alleged that the companies manufacturing stubble residue machines have already inflated the cost of the machines. Therefore, most of the government subsidies went to these machine companies while farmers and the normal public continue to suffer due to heavy air pollution.

Jagmohan said that only cash incentives can help farmers to deal with the stubble.

The Supreme Court in 2019 directed the state governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to provide financial support to farmers so that they can manage crop residue and refrain from stubble burning. But the state governments focused more on promoting subsidised machines as a solution, which is clearly not working.

In the same year, the Punjab government also sought to incentivise farmers who own land of up to five acres with a cash reward of Rs 2,500 per acre to stop stubble burning.

“We strongly demand from both state and Centre that they devise a mechanism to give cash incentive to farmers below 10 acres so that the farmers can bear the cost of managing the stubble which they can’t do now because of the already higher cost of production,” he said.

On the other hand, the Punjab government has claimed that it has provided 10,000 crop residue machines to 3,500 cooperative societies through which small farmers can avail these machines rent-free.

Farmer Manjit Singh from Patiala told The Wire that it is difficult to avail themselves of machines on time. “Even if we get them through cooperative societies, there is still expenditure involved in hiring a tractor and labour for cutting stubble, bundling it and then loading and unloading,” he said.

“My input cost has already increased due to the DAP shortage and hike in labour charges. The cost of managing stubble is not less than Rs 2,500-3,000 per acre. I am not in a capacity to bear the cost. That is why I am forced to burn the stubble,” he added.

According to economist Lakhwinder Singh, a total of 20 million tonnes of stubble is generated alone from paddy crops. This residue can be used in multiple industries. For instance, in western countries, factories produce construction nets from paddy stubble to control dust. There are as many as 26 uses including producing organic manures. Unless the policymakers create adequate economic viability, this problem will not go away.

Other experts are also asking the government to promote the biogas industry that uses stubble as raw material.

A dozen biogas plants have already come up in Punjab. These plants are buying stubble from farmers at the rate of Rs 3,000 per tonne, but their total stubble consumption so far is not more than 10-12 lakh tonnes, that is not even 5% of the total production of stubble in Punjab.