As north India reels under pollution, composting initiatives at Punjab's Sri Muktsar Sahib present alternatives to crop burning

In India, white rice next to bowls of lentils on a plate symbolises nutrition and survival. However, rice is circuitously linked to the particulate matter billowing into the air in Delhi. The journey from farm to plate, which affects everybody who breathes, is not an easy one to explain.

In Punjab's Sri Muktsar Sahib district, till last year, farmers like Sukhchain Singh — a resident of the Ude Karan gram panchayat — used to burn paddy stubble before sowing the next crop of wheat. Singh told Firstpost that an acre of land used to generate 10 tonnes of stubble straw. This would be burned, because the only other way of getting rid of it was selling it to a contractor for Rs 2,000. The lack of subsidies aimed at preventing stubble burning led farmers to resort to a method which is cheap and clears up fields quickly. When the consequences of this became irrefutably visible in Delhi, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered in 2016 that a fine of Rs 2,500 should be imposed on people who violate the stubble burning ban across Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi NCR.

 As north India reels under pollution, composting initiatives at Punjabs Sri Muktsar Sahib present alternatives to crop burning

Paddy straw can be composted by being mixed into a water and cow dung when left in piles as high as 6 ft for 60 days. Pallavi Rebbapragada

Sukhchain said that the NGT's order does not solve the problem, as farmers are poor and they do not burn stubble as an act of defiance. As a result of the ban, farmers would burn stubble at night or unionise themselves to dodge local authorities. Sukhchain, who actively collaborates with municipal authorities in Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) activities like cleanliness drives and construction of toilets, said that the awareness about environmental damage has grown this year. Sukhchain is among the couple of hundred farmers who are participating in an ongoing programme on paddy straw composting. The programme has been conceptualised by C Srinivasan, a member of the apex monitoring committee constituted in 2016 to ensure compliance to the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. This is a six-day programme that is going on in the gram panchayats of Karamgarh and Ude Karan, and Srinivasan says that district authorities like deputy commissioner Arvind Kumar and Dr Richa, additional deputy commissioner (General), Muktsar, are taking part. He further says that this initiative may also be carried out in other districts.

“To give you a rough estimate, we take two kilos of cow dung and mix it with 100 litres of water and then soak the paddy residue in this stack which is 6 feet high. The bacteria from the cow dung slowly seeps into the paddy straw and turns it into manure,” said Raj Kumar, a sanitary inspector of the municipal council who is working with the farmers. “Today, such an operation needs Rs 4,000 labour cost but can offer farmers returns of about Rs 30,000. But if machines collect the material, that cost can drastically reduce,” he added.

Paddy straw can be composted by being mixed with water and cow dung, and being stored in piles as high as 6 feet for 60 days.

C Srinivasan is the brain behind the Vellore Model of "Solid and Liquid Resource Management (SLRM)" that entails segregating and processing waste. In the model, waste collection is done twice a day and every day, to ensure that collected inorganic waste is immediately cleaned, processed and packed ready for sale, and organic waste is spread in aerobic compost beds or tanks, after being mixed with cow dung slurry as a bacterial inoculums.

“We are urging the farmers to provide 126 square feet for one acre of land. In this space, the paddy residue will take 60 days to compost. This will save them 30 percent water and also save on diesel and transportation cost,” Srinivasan said. He further explained that this can boost manure trade and create jobs under MNREGA. In the spirit of the Swachh Bharat Mission, which seeks to make citizens responsible for sanitation, the process of composting can encourage people to work together towards a financially and ecologically viable solution. To ensure implementation of SLRM, neighbourhood self-help groups are given responsibilities, and these groups are granted loans and subsidies by the government.

Richa said that there is a lack of awareness and asked why manure cannot be made from paddy residue if it can be made from dry leaves. “The model that is taking shape here can inspire farmers from different districts. We urge them to come to Ude Karan and understand the benefits of composting,” she said.

Gurpreet Singh, horticulture development officer at Sri Muktsar Sahib district has been educating farmers on the loss to the air, water and soil that stubble burning contributes to. “We are educating the farmers about the fact that for 10 quintals of stubble residue, 70 percent of carbon dioxide, 7 percent of carbon monoxide and 0.29 percent of methane are released,” he said, recommending the practice of Zero Till Farming. This makes use of a rotovator, a tractor-drawn implement used to pulverise the stubble, and then to remove and mix the residue. Another solution is the development of shorter duration paddy varieties.

Along with the stubble, farmers in north India are burning organic carbon, phosphate, nitrogen and phosphorous off the soil only to save money that is hard-earned and requires long days of working in the fields. Srinivasan feels that through an "each one, teach one" mission and with support from district administrations, a big crisis can be uprooted from its source.

Updated Date: Oct 30, 2018 15:44:49 IST