Stubble burning: Delhi at risk of another smog attack as Punjab farmers have little alternative but burn straw

Editor's Note: Late sowing, lack of government incentive to remove stubble mechanically have often led farmers in Punjab and Haryana to burn paddy stubble during autumn to immediately prepare the fields for wheat cultivation. Consequently, the stubble burning occurs on such a huge scale that it even engulfs Delhi in a canopy of smog: thus causing serious pollution for days and health issues. In this, part one of a three-part series, Firstpost seeks to find out why stubble is still burnt despite obvious ill-effects and a solution, if possible. This is the first part of the series.

Ludhiana: For two winters, Delhi has made international headlines for its toxic air, with multiple countries classifying the national capital a punishment posting for its diplomats. This year might be no different with air pollution already in the ‘poor’ category and making news.

Stubble burning: Delhi at risk of another smog attack as Punjab farmers have little alternative but burn straw

Representational image. Reuters

It’s Delhi’s nearby states that are frequently blamed for increasing the winter smog due to stubble burning. In neighbouring Punjab, the paddy fields are set on fire yearly – a fallout of the state’s efforts to conserve groundwater.

The issue has been a bone of contention between Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Punjab counterpart Captain Amarinder Singh, who even had a Twitter spat over it.

Paddy this year was cultivated on more than 30 lakh hectares (against nearly 29 lakh hectares last year) of land in Punjab, and the government estimates that 15 million tonne of paddy straw is burnt in the state annually.

Punjab’s paddy problem

Till 2008, the state’s farmers could sow paddy, a water-guzzling crop, anytime. To clear their fields later, many of them used to dig huge pits in which they dumped the paddy straw to convert it into manure. At that time, migratory labour in Punjab was also cheap and that helped in the removal of the straw.

But in a bid to conserve groundwater, the Punjab government, through a notification under Punjab Preservation of SubSoil Water Act, 2009, fixed 10 June as the date before which paddy crop could not be sowed.

Later, in 2014, another notification fixed the date to June 15 and this year it was further extended to 20 June.

The late sowing resulted in the delayed harvesting of the crop, leaving the farmers with little time to sow the next crucial crop -- wheat.

When sown in fields after 20 June, paddy is harvested in mid-October. On the other hand, the wheat-sowing season is late October to November. Thus, to clear the fields off paddy straw swiftly, the farmers resort to burning them.

This problem has only intensified over the decade.

The idea to generate electricity by stubble-burning also never took off, as it was currently impossible to set up powerhouses that could consume 15 million tonne of paddy straw.

Paddy over Basmati

Over the years, the Punjab government has failed to attract farmers to alternative crops, resulting in major parts of the state being taken over by paddy cultivation.

Paddy crop being groundwater-intensive, the state government provides free electricity to the farmers for cultivation of the crop -- an incentive that works in the crop’s favour.

While the area under paddy has thus increased, the percentage area occupied by Basmati has reduced in the states of Haryana and Punjab by 8 percent to 9 percent.

No MSP on Basmati is another reason why farmers shy away from planting a crop that could reduce stubble-burning, not to mention that Basmati straw is cattle-fodder and thus not burnt.

State measures

Under pressure after the outcry raised over pollution caused by stubble-burning, the Punjab government last month announced the provision of more than 7,000 farming machines to farmers for scientific management of paddy residue. Subsidy of 50 percent on the machines was offered to individual farmers and 80 percent to cooperative societies.

The machinery, including paddy straw choppers, mulcher, RMB plough, shrub cutter, zero till drill, and super straw management systems on harvesters, would be used to remove stalks from 30 lakh hectare of land.

The state’s nodal officer for the anti-stubble burning campaign KS Pannu said the agriculture department was working to ensure the delivery of machines before the onset of the paddy harvesting season.

“All deputy commissioners have been directed to aggressively pursue the campaign to end stubble-burning – a major cause of pollution in north India,” he said.

The government has also appointed nodal officers in 8,000 paddy-growing villages to check stubble-burning.

According to additional chief secretary Viswajeet Khanna, to curb the practice this year, staff from panchayats and agriculture, horticulture, soil conservation and other departments will also be roped in.

For every 20 villages, an officer will be deployed to submit a detailed status report after the harvesting season, so that data is collated and stored in the offices of the chief agriculture officer for record and reference purpose.

Farmer trials

But the farmers will still be forced to burn their fields.

Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of one faction of Bharatiya Kisan Union, said the paddy crop had retained moisture due to the recent rains and harvesting would be further delayed.

“Farmers will be forced to burn the paddy residue to clear the land for the wheat crop. The majority of poor farmers are not in a position to get machinery to remove the stubble even at subsidised rates,” he said.

He further pointed out that whitefly had destroyed a large portion of the cotton crop in the Malwa belt of Punjab in the past five-seven years, forcing the farmers to replace it with paddy.

For long, the farmers have been demanding incentives for proper disposal of stubble from fields.

Buta Singh, 39, one such farmer from Barnala, said some of his kind in his village have formed groups to get access to the subsidised machinery.

“If you ask for numbers, the machines are available for only 1 percent of farmers. Even at subsidised rates, poor farmers cannot hire them. Some kind of assistance by the government in removing stubble from every acre of land is required,” he explained, adding that burning paddy straw was the only option left to the majority of farmers even this year.

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Stubble burning: For debt-ridden poor farmers in Punjab neither subsidy nor penalty can stop cultivators from burning straw

The author is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.

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Updated Date: Oct 10, 2018 14:45:35 IST

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