Why Rising Diesel Prices Could Lead to More Stubble Burning

Machines meant to mulch paddy stubble consume a lot of diesel – which means the per acre cost may become unaffordable to some.

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The rising diesel prices (Rs 95.97/litre) not only burns our festive budgets, but could make us cough and give us serious breathing problems, too.

Paddy fields across the Punjab-Haryana region are being harvested, and slowly being primed for stubble burning. Sporadic burning has even began. In ten day’s time, like last year, north India could be engulfed in stubble soot mixed with fossil fuel smoke and industrial residues. A happy Diwali, indeed.

But how did this happen? Our government’s solution against stubble burning has been agri-machinery like “Happy Seeders”,” “Super seeders”, “Mulchers”, etc. All fine machinery, requiring investment in heavy tractors and a lot of diesel. Farmers were encouraged to buy Happy Seeders or rent them for mulching paddy straw. A sound idea, no doubt, when diesel prices weren’t so taxed.

The Happy Seeder requires about 10 litres of diesel per acre, and can only do about 10-12 acres a day. The Super Seeder and Straw Management System (SMS) based machines are even heavier, and apart from requiring over 65 HP tractors, consume a lot more diesel.

Now the rapid increase of fuel prices has changed farmers’ costs. Till about 2018, it costed an additional Rs 1,000-1,500 per acre to mulch and clean the straw, now its over Rs 2,500. Small and marginal farmers, which are about 80% of Punjab, are thrown into a dilemma – environmental conservation or survival? The sharp increase in fuel prices had already eaten into their meagre incomes and now an additional Rs 2,500/acre for straw mulching has left them with no real choice.

Also read: ‘We’re Forced to Burn Stubble, Govt Has Failed to Provide Incentives’: Punjab Farmers

Overall, farmers themselves are not keen on burning stubble, because it effects their health and their children first. But rising per acre costs are also complimented by the unavailability of these machines. Some villages have two or three machines, but don’t have enough time to mulch and sow the next crop for everyone. Keep in mind that the paddy farmers have less than ten days to harvest, sell and return to sowing their fields. The mulching takes more days and about eight different operations. Wheat across North India will be sowed before November 15, if not earlier.

The government’s orders to fine farmers have also not sat well with the agricultural community, as many of them know that stubble burning started at the advice of the government’s agri-scientists. The general consensus among farmers is that corporate manufactures have benefited the most from Happy Seeder subsidies, and not them.

Looking at all the factors combined, diesel prices have pushed farmers deeper into trouble. There is a high probability that Punjab and Haryana will burn brighter this year than last year. For all our sakes, I hope I am wrong.

Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent policy analyst and writer and also the former director of the National Seed Association of India.