What Is the Solution to Punjab's Paddy Stubble Burning Problem?

The crop cycle in Punjab is largely limited to wheat and rice. A diversification away from these two crops would reduce the burden on the state's natural resources, but this should be incentivised and supported by institutional apparatus.

Unable to dissuade farmers from burning paddy straw, the Punjab government recently announced a global million-dollar prize for contriving a viable solution to manage the stubble left after the paddy crop is harvested. As farmers of Punjab gear up for another round of paddy harvest, the smoke from stubble burning has already reached Delhi, like previous years. This is an opportune occasion to examine why farmers prefer burning stubble despite legal sanctions against it and to investigate the ecological disasters which the crop has brought to the region.

Paddy was introduced in Punjab during the early years of the green revolution in a bid to substitute the import of American wheat under the PL-480 program and reduce the food deficit in the country. Consequently, as food security became the focus of policy planning, no heed was paid to the damage caused to the natural eco-system of the state by the proliferating land area under paddy cultivation.

Punjab has an aggregate geographical area of 5.03 million hectares, out of which a staggering 83% is under agricultural cultivation. In contemporary times, supported by the input and output price structures and superior varieties of wheat and rice as compared to other crops, agricultural output in Punjab has virtually turned into a rice-wheat monoculture. Termed correctly as the ‘food granary’ of the country, the state alone contributes over 45% wheat and nearly 30% rice to the central pool of public distribution system.

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However, this was not always the case.

Faced with a dire shortage of food grains and the consequent introduction of green revolution strategy to address it, Punjab moved away from its traditional cropping pattern to the current rice-wheat cultivation cycle. Table 1 represents the increase in the net sown area under paddy from only 0.29 million hectare in 1966-67 to nearly 3 million hectares by the first decade of the 21st century.

At the same time, the average rice productivity also jumped from 1,186 kg/ha in 1966–1967 to 3,741 kg/ha by 2011–2012. The increase paddy production however, came at the cost of traditional crops like gram and maize. From around 30%, the area under cultivation of these crops almost became negligible. This shift has been discerned as one of the most startling changes in land use observed in agrarian history anywhere.

Three main reasons can explain this boom in the production of this foreign crop in the farms of Punjab.

First, as previously mentioned, the seeds of green revolution in the country were sown in Punjab. The hybrid varieties of paddy were tested in the region because of a higher level of mechanisation and better irrigation spread relative to other parts of the country. While the state did have an extensive canal network, it never had enough surface water to grow paddy, which requires standing water for more than 45 days.

While the state did have an extensive canal network, it never had enough surface water to grow paddy, which requires standing water for more than 45 days.

Second, the traditional seed variety of rice and wheat used before the green revolution required a longer duration for maturity, making it virtually impossible for the farmers to support a rotational cycle of the two crops. The introduction of the photoperiod insensitive seeds (which made developmental responses of plants neutral to light and dark periods) made it possible for the farmers to grow high-yielding varieties which matured in much shorter durations.

This made it conducive for the farmers to grow rice in the summers followed by wheat in the winters in the same field. The inevitable result however was the over-utilisation of natural resources due to a surge in cropping intensity, which currently stands at nearly 200%, the highest in the country.

Third, the availability of minimum support price (MSP) and procurement markets for paddy incentivised the farmers to replace the traditional crops which did not enjoy the same benefit. This was in fact, part of the larger strategy of the Central government to provide impetus to the production of wheat and rice in order to avoid the ship to mouth sustenance from the PL-480 aid. During an interview with farmers in the Bathinda region, many farmers of the older generation vividly recalled shifting away from traditional crops to paddy due to support prices. This ushered in prosperity for many farming families.

Depleting groundwater

Paddy, which is grown on about 75% of cultivable land in Punjab, is a water-guzzling crop and has leeched the state’s water. Estimates by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices for 2015-16 suggest that the state uses 5,337 liters of water for every kilogram of paddy, which is double the amount required in West Bengal – a natural habitat for the crop. The conventional method of paddy cultivation requires flood irrigation primarily to arrest the growth of weeds in the soil. Hence, growing paddy for the green revolution translated into aggressively increase Punjab’s irrigation spread.

This was possible either through expansion of the canal network or increased groundwater usage. The absence of sufficient surface water and infrastructural investment for canal network meant that a majority of farmers turned towards groundwater to irrigate their fields. Drawing groundwater was not regulated either. Even today, over 75% of the total area under paddy cultivation is irrigated using groundwater. In central Punjab, where 72% of the area is under paddy cultivation, canal irrigation benefits only 21% of the region.

Punjab receives less than 500 millimeters of rainfall. The average requirement for paddy is 1200-1460 millimeters,  thereby imposing additional dependency on groundwater. The problem is exacerbated by provision of free electricity and not restricting the depth to which tube-wells can be dug. Because of free electricity, pumps are kept running, eliminating any incentive to rationalise the use of water.

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Farmers suggest there are hardly any recorded cases of sanctions being imposed because tube-wells were installed without prior permission. Today, nearly 14 lakh tube-wells in the state pump around 4.8 lakh million liters of water while running for 8 hours every day. According to the Central Ground Water Board’s figures, out of the 138 administrative blocks in the state, 110 have been categorised as over-exploited and six are either critical or semi-critical.

Furthermore, the stage of ground water development index at 172% – the highest in the country – is a scary indicator that the annual ground water consumption is much more than the annual recharge. The ground water availability in the state for future irrigation use is not only the lowest in the country, but in fact is minus 14.83 billion cubic meters. Currently, ground water is receding at a rate of 70 cm per year in the state.

The ground water depletion accelerated during the early 1900s when a shorter duration variety of paddy known as Govinda was introduced. Popularly known as sathi because it matured in 60 days, Govinda allowed farmers to cultivate two cycles of paddy in one season starting from mid-April. Farmers were naturally quick to adopt as they the variety offered the opportunity to double their return in one season.

These increasing returns came at the price of excessive water drawing from the ground to support the two cycles. Adding to the problem was the fact that paddy grown during April and May requires about 4,500 liters of water for every hectare, compared to the 3,000 liters required in June. This is primarily because of the increased rate of evaporation in April and May. In later months, monsoon showers irrigate the field and also decrease the rate of evaporation.

A paddy field. Credit: Flickr/Mark Doliner CC BY SA 2.0

Propelled by environmental campaigns and with these factors in mind, the Punjab government first passed an ordinance and later the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009 prohibiting paddy transplantation before a notified date in June. If violated, the legislation permitted agricultural officers to destroy the nursery or transplanted paddy and even disconnect power supply for repeat violations.

The law has greatly altered the landscape of the state. Fields that were earlier green with sathi saplings from mid-April now remain fallow till June 15, the usual notified date.

Though the move has checked the fast receding water-level of the state to some extent (for instance, this year the state agriculture department estimated that Punjab will save 24 lakh million cubic of water by stretching the notified date to June 20), it has opened another plethora of troubles for the farming community.

Farmers in the Sangrur district, who were amongst the early cultivators of sathi, lamented that previously, they could grow a mix of sathi, basmati and parmal across different time periods starting from mid-April. This provided a safety net. If one variety failed, they could fall back on the others for sustenance. This pattern has largely changed after the Act, bringing uniformity in the production cycle, both in terms of crop variety and growing season, increasing the vulnerability to crop failures.

Earlier, sowing and harvesting was staggered earlier to ensure there was no shortage of labour. Now, because all the farmers must sow and harvest at the same time, there is labour shortage. Private procurement also fetched a good price earlier, but now, when the supply spikes during the harvest period, prices plunge.

If sown later, paddy is prone to diseases and pests. This has forced farmers to increasingly depend on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Punjab’s average fertilizer usage of 380 kg/hectare is almost triple the national average of 131 kg/hectare. The usage of pesticides at 923g/hectare is also double the national average.

If sown later, paddy is prone to diseases and pests.

This throws up a host of health hazards. Excess chemicals often seep into the soil and mix with groundwater, creating a ‘cesspool of toxicity’. This is evident from the critical presence of heavy elements such as uranium and arsenic above the permissible levels in many parts of the state.

Delayed sowing of paddy means that the crop matures only in mid-October. Late harvest increases the moisture content in the crop, negatively effecting its price in the market. Between the rice and wheat crop season, farmers grew potato and pulses. But because of the sowing season being delayed, that has become difficult. It is for this reason that farmers burn paddy residue to quickly prepare the field for the rabi crop, which has to be planted by the first week of November.

Unregulated use of tube wells has damaged the water cycle. Credit: Flickr/JIRCAS Library CC BY 2.0

The crisis of stubble

The burning of paddy stubble has received flak over the past few years after smoke clouds engulfed the northern part of the country during the early winter months. Politicians and media commentators have been quick to hold farmers liable for the deteriorating air quality and the resultant exacerbation of respiratory diseases and reduction in visibility. Punjab banned the burning of stubble in 2013 and in 2015 the National Green Tribunal ordered the same when pollution became increasingly felt in the NCR-Delhi region. The government has resorted to coercive actions in the form of punitive damages, police raids and striking a red entry in the girdhabra (land record) of the violating farmers.

Meanwhile, farmers continue to violate the ban orders even if they are aware that the burning increases local pollution and results in the loss of important soil nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous.

In Punjab, only about 20% of straw is managed through biomass power plants, paper and cardboard mills. The remaining quantity of over 15 million tonnes is burnt in open fields. The stubble releases enormous quantities of particulate matter, especially the dangerous 2.5 PM, along with other noxious gases. The higher moisture content in the winter air accuetuates the problem as it traps the pollutants and prevents their dispersal.

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Harpreet Singh, a farmer who owns over 50 acres of farm land in Bathinda district, recalls that the problem of stubble increased only after combine harvesters were introduced during the green revolution. Earlier, the paddy was manually harvested and stubble was simultaneously ploughed back into the fields. Combine harvesters can harvest, thrash and clean the separated grains all at once but leave about a foot-high stubble. Manually harvesting the crop has become unfeasible because of high labour cost and increased land under paddy.

The urgency to remove stubble arises from the necessity to sow wheat seeds by early November. Wheat is a 140-day crop and the crucial time for harvest is mid-April, when the temperature is about 35 degrees C. If the sowing of wheat delayed, the ripens prematurely, which adversely affects the production quality. Further exacerbating the problem is the Preservation of Subsoil Act, which leaves very little time for farmer to prepare the field for wheat sowing. Burning left-over stubble becomes an easy rescue option.

The urgency to remove stubble arises from the necessity to sow wheat seeds by early November.

While many options have been offered to hand stubble in an efficient fashion, none seem to be tied with an appropriate financial or institutional mechanisms. The most prominent solution presented is the in-situ management which involves ploughing back the stubble in the ground. This is economically unfeasible for farmers because of the high cost of both manual labour and mechanised options.

For instance, the happy seeder machine which adopts a low tillage system to cut the straw and distribute as mulch on the field is priced at Rs 1.5 lakh. Even after a government subsidy of 33%, it is economically unfeasible for most farmers as their seasonal return does not exceed more than Rs 12,000-Rs 15,000 per hectare. While farmer’s cooperatives and unions could be utilised to house such equipment in clusters, no institutional mechanism has been worked out.

Another solution is to cut, bail and transport the straw to cardboard factories or bio-mass based power plants. A few big farmers do this, but no institutional mechanism exists to incentivise it. Bailed straw is also difficult to handle, bulky to store and expensive to transport, inflating the cost of the farmers.

Farmers’ organisations have been demanding financial assistance either in the form of add-on to the procurement price to the tun of Rs 100-200 per quintal or a cash subsidy of about Rs 4,000-5,000 to help defray the expenses of disposing stubble in an environmental friendly manner. Even the NGT had ordered the state government to provide financial assistance for procuring machinery to till stubble. But the reality is that the coffers of the state government are empty and the Centre has not responded to the state’s request for agricultural financial provisioning.

Combines harvester leave a stubble, unlike manual harvesting.

Diversification: they way out

While the green revolution resulted in food sufficiency for the country, it sowed the seeds of ecological imbalance and health hazards in Punjab. Any solution to divert the impending ecological disaster will have to be rooted in diversification of agricultural land-use and cropping pattern of the state. But this is easier said than done in a state where farm distress takes over 1,000 lives every year.

Most recently, the state’s 2013 Agricultural Policy strongly suggested shifting at least 1.2 million hectares away from paddy cultivation. In reality, the area has only increased each successive year. This is simply because in the present situation, farmers have absolutely no incentive to diversify their cropping pattern.

Farmers of Punjab have were prosperous during the green revolution era, after the government introduced HYV hybrid crops and assured MSP rates. In contemporary times, when farmers are already reeling under an agrarian distress mounted by heavy input cost, low returns and climate vagaries, it is unreasonable to expect them to diversify.

Also Read: How Have Real Incomes From Paddy and Wheat Farming Changed in the Last Five Years?

Further, while each state has its own agricultural policy, it is largely the Centre that funds and finances agricultural input, which in turn defines the focus of each state towards its farms. Recent studies in this field argue that the Centre is strategically opposed to diversification in Punjab because of the critical reliance on the state’s production of paddy to feed the nation. Empirical research suggests a supply gap of more than 3.5 million tonnes of rice by 2020.

In such circumstances, policy intervention which focuses on good price remuneration and assured procurement market could incentivise farmers to diversify their cropping patterns. At the same time, it is pertinent that the government regulates use of groundwater. In 2010, Punjab refused to adopt the Centre’s model Bill for management of groundwater, claiming it was too harsh on the farmers. Similarly, it is imperative that institutionalised apparatus is put in place to dispose paddy in an efficient manner. Until such timely measures are not taken, the state’s ecological survival will continue to hang in the balance.

Lovish Garg is at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.