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Stubble burning is back, smothering north India with concerns for the upcoming winter

While authorities claim they are all set to deal with what is now a yearly crisis, stubble-burning cases reported so far are much higher than last year.


What causes major worry is same solutions that earlier failed to stop farm burnings are being pushed again amidst similar concerns from farmers.

Many pitches cash compensation to farmers and crop diversification as more viable solutions but government action is going in a different direction.

Vivek Gupta

Even as authorities claim that they are all set to deal with what is now an annual public health crisis, stubble burning in the northern states of India is back this year, raising concern among citizens, government authorities and policymakers. For the last several years, the practice of stubble burning – where fire is set to straw stubble to clear fields before the next crop is planted – has been one of the prime reasons for air pollution over the national capital region (NCR) and other parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains, before the onset of the winter season.

The Punjab Pollution Control Department’s latest data revealed that a total of 650 field fire incidents were reported between September 15 and October 6 this year, more than double the cases (320) recorded during the same period last year. This year, the border district of Amritsar reported 419 cases followed by 109 cases in Taran Taran. In Haryana too, 48 cases of field fires have been reported so far, against 24 last year.

The Punjab Pollution Control Board member secretary Krunesh Garg, however, told Mongabay-India that these initial cases were from areas where early varieties of paddy are grown. But initial burning data in Punjab showed trends similar to previous years.

Meanwhile in Delhi, in 2021, the 30-day average of its air quality index (AQI) in the stubble burning-affected month of November stood at 376 (very poor category) of which 11 days were such when AQI touched above 400 (severe category). The data of the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) also testified that the share of stubble burning in Delhi’s toxic air varied between 25% and 48% during the peak season between November 4 and 13 last year.

This year, as early as the start of October, paddy fields in the region have already started billowing smoke, indicating what the coming days will look like, especially when paddy harvesting will scale up from October 15 onwards.

Stubble burning in some cases, has been more of a necessity. For instance, late rains in Punjab and Haryana in September delayed the paddy harvesting by one week in several parts of the region. This delay left a narrow window for the next wheat crop sowing and stubble burning would be the fastest way to clear the fields before the sowing period.

Solutions that did not work

For years, the central government, in collaboration with affected states has tried to come up with a variety of solutions to stop stubble burning. It includes one-time cash compensation given to farmers in 2019, as directed by the Supreme Court. This effort did not sustain since both the state governments and the centre did not back it with an adequate budget.

Some solutions like a bio-decomposer developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) were pitched as game changers. But field trials held in Punjab last year as well as this year dampened the enthusiasm because it was taking 25-30 days to dissolve the stubble inside the fields. This in turn, would leave a small window between paddy harvesting and wheat sowing which made the farmers reluctant to adopt it widely.

Other trials at Punjab Agriculture University, for example, found the stubble dissolving period to be beyond one month, director of research Ajmer Singh Dhatt told Mongabay-India. Due to this, Punjab uses the bio-decomposer only on 2023 hectares (just .07% of its total paddy area), informed Gurvinder Singh, director of Punjab Agriculture Department.

While Haryana’s farmers too are sceptical, there is still wide use of the bio-decomposer in the state. Director of Haryana’s Agriculture Department, Hardeep Kadian told Mongabay-India that in the 2021, decomposer was used over 1.21 lakh (121,000) hectares of land. “It was successful because the satellite did not capture the fire in areas where this solution was applied,” he claimed.

“We have set the target of 2.02 (202,000) lakh hectares this year, nearly 15% of the total 13.76 (137,600) lakh hectares of paddy area in Haryana. We hope to achieve the current year’s target since we have also announced a subsidy of Rs. 1000 per acre as an incentive for farmers to not burn stubble. The money will not be given if the satellite captures fire in their field,” he added.

Along with these, industry-backed solutions were also devised. It includes using stubble as raw material for bio-gas-based power generation etc. But the problem is that their current reuse is a fraction of total stubble generation. The total stubble generation in Punjab and Haryana is 18.5 and seven million tonnes respectively. This is based on the figure shared by the agriculture departments of these states.

There are media reports which suggest that total stubble reuse in Punjab is unlikely to be more than 1.1 million tonnes (6% of total stubble generation). But, PPCB member secretary Krunesh Garg claimed, while talking to Mongabay-India, that the figure will touch two million tonnes. “This time, we have tied up with different industries including paper mills, which are ready to use paddy stubble as raw material in their factories,” he informed.

But even if the state manages to reuse two million tonnes of paddy straw, which right now looks uncertain, the reuse will not be more than 11% of its total generation.

Haryana, on the other hand, is confident to reuse 1.2 to 1.3 million tonnes of paddy straw, 18% of its total stubble generation, in the industrial sector. Kadian said that the total stubble reuse in 2021 was 0.8 million tonnes. Now with the commissioning of the ethanol plant set up by the Indian Oil Corporation in Panipat, the stubble reuse from this year would increase by at least 0.2 to 0.3 million tonnes.

In-situ model in focus again

While various solutions are being experimented with in the background, the centre is now once again pushing the machine-based in-situ (mixing stubble in soil) practice. Ever since the scheme was launched in 2018, the union ministry of agriculture distributed over two lakh (200,000) subsidised machines to farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi at a subsidised cost, the total of which was Rs. 2.4 billion. Of this, 1.5 lakh (150,000) machines carrying a subsidy cost of Rs. 1.8 billion alone landed in Punjab (90,000) and Haryana (60,000) since their burning load is highest in the region. Similarly, some 58,000 machines were sent to Uttar Pradesh.

With 51,764 cases in 2018, 52,991 cases in 2019, 76,929 cases in 2020, and 71,304 cases in 2021, Punjab is at the top of stubble-burning cases in the region. Haryana, which has paddy area that is half of Punjab, has recorded stubble burning cases between 6,000-10,000. For instance, it had 10,288 cases in 2018 followed by 6,700 cases next year in 2019, 9,898 cases in 2020, and then 6,987 fires in 2021.

As per the data obtained from Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), Uttar Pradesh reported 6,636 burning cases in 2018 followed by 4,230 cases in 2019, 4,659 cases in 2020 and 4,242 cases in 2021. Delhi, on the other hand, had nine and four cases respective in 2020 and 2021, revealed IARI data.

In a bid to reduce burning cases this year, union Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar called representatives of affected states – Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh – for a meeting in Delhi on September 21. In this meeting, another 50,000 in-situ machines, touted as an eco-friendly, fast and effective solution, were pushed this fiscal year with a total outlay of Rs. seven billion. This push was despite the fact that a majority of farmers in the region, mostly small and marginal, continue to resist the use of in-situ machines for a number of reasons – mostly expenses and efficiency related. This year too, they have spoken vocally in media reports that they have no option but to put their fields on fire since the governments – whether state or centre – hardly paid any heed to their demand for a cash incentive to meet expenses needed to handle the stubble.

On why farmers’ compensation demand is legitimate, farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal told Mongabay-India that 68% of farmers in Punjab have less than 2.02 hectares of land holding. These small and marginal farmers cannot afford such machines which, even after subsidy, are priced at Rs. 1.5 lakh (Rs. 150,000).

Further, even if machines are taken on rent, there is a heavy operating cost ranging from hiring a bigger tractor to diesel. If government incentivises farmers, it then becomes their responsibility to clear stubble – whether through manual labour or any other way other than putting them on fire, added Rajewal.

The new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab had sent a proposal to the centre in July this year asking it to contribute Rs. 1500 per acre in its plan to give Rs. 2500 per acre compensation to state farmers. The state government had planned to contribute the remaining Rs. 1000 per acre with help from its counterparts in the Delhi government.

But the centre denied the proposal on the ground that it involved a huge cost. The area under paddy in both Punjab and Haryana this year is close to 4.4 million hectares including 3.04 million hectares in Punjab and 1.38 million hectares in Haryana. If centre had to compensate Punjab alone as per the proposal of the AAP government, its one-time contribution would have been Rs. 1.1 billion.

Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma argues in favour of financial compensation saying that when the centre can spend huge money on subsidising machines that farmers are not using anyway, there is nothing wrong with offering cash incentives to stop stubble burning when the matter in hand is of life and death.

Why are farmers against in-situ machines?

Other than the financial constraints, farmers have other concerns too. Puran Singh, a farmer from Deep Singh Wala village of Punjab’s Faridkot told Mongabay-India that he used one of these machines, called Happy Seeder, in his fields two years ago. Explaining how it works, he said it is mounted on a tractor which removes the paddy stubble while simultaneously sowing wheat for the next harvest.

He said to his surprise, the wheat crop sown with Happy Seeder became more prone to pest attack. This plummeted his wheat production and caused him huge losses. “I did not use it thereafter,” he added.

Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Punjab’s Nakodar town, said even if someone manages to buy the machine, it cannot be operated on small tractors. It is needed a bigger tractor, which costs at least Rs. 7-8 lakhs (Rs. 700,00-800,000). He said that is why most farmers find it convenient to burn the stubble.

When asked, Punjab Agriculture University director of research, Ajmer Singh Dhatt told Mongabay-India that these concerns are unwarranted. He said except Super Seeder, all other machines can be used in medium tractors. “I think right now farmers are guided by their convenience. When they realise that the soil health of their fields improves manifold by mixing the stubble into the soil, the usage of these machines or other methods will increase,” said Dhatt.

However, Kesar Singh Bhangoo, a professor who teaches in the department of economics at Punjabi University, Patiala, told Mongabay-India that these subsidised machines only benefited machinery manufacturers or big farmers.

The fact that stubble-burning cases in Punjab have not gone down is a clear indication that the majority of farmers are not interested in buying them. This trend is the same in other states, he added.

Another instance of how the in-situ model has flaws came last month when the current AAP government claimed to have unearthed a Rs. 150 crore scam relating to the purchase of these machines. As per the initial investigation, 11,000 in-situ machines (13% of total machines distributed so far) never reached beneficiary farmers, alleged the part, and suspected that they were mostly fake entries.

Leading agriculture scientist Sardara Singh Johl told Mongabay-India that the stubble-burning problem can be solved at least in Punjab and Haryana if the focus is on phasing out paddy and replacing it with diversified crops like maize and pulses.

He claims that farmers adopted paddy due to aggressive policies of the centre and the state in the 60s, which later became popularly known as the Green Revolution. At that time, it was the need of the hour as the country’s population had to be fed. But Punjab had to pay a heavy price for this. “Our groundwater tanked to an alarming stage due to heavy consumption of water needed to cultivate paddy (1 kg of paddy needs 4000 litres of water),” said Johl.

He said along with this, stubble burning became a huge ecological issue, which has now become an annual mess.

On why paddy could not be phased out despite long years of debate, he said it is a long debate, but the crux of the matter is that there is a lack of political will both at the level of state and centre.

This article was first published on Mongabay here