Every year after the harvest of paddy crops, acres upon acres of farmland are intentionally set on fire by farmers to clear the stubble that is left behind after the harvest to prepare the land for the next cycle of cropping. Punjab alone has been recorded to generate about 20 million tonnes of stubble burning in various years. The smoke generated can travel up to 250 km, severely degrading air quality. For instance, The Commission for Air Quality Management alleged that stubble burning alone was responsible for 35% – 40% of the pollution seen in Delhi NCR in November 2021. And the fact that policy measures taken by respective governments are not adequate in addressing the issue is more clear than ever, as will be evident later in the article. However, before we begin to draw out the reasons which have led to the growth of stubble burning as an annual activity, we must understand why it began to contribute to India’s air pollution so significantly only in the last few decades. In this article, I will first try to draw your attention to the root cause of stubble burning as a phenomenon, following which I will analyse the current facilities provided to farmers to mitigate the problem and conclude with a pragmatic, long-term proposition.
As it turns out, ‘Paddy’, the crop that leaves about 1-2 feet of stubble after harvest, was not even a prominent crop in Punjab before the agricultural revolution in the 1960s. It was then, to combat acute food shortage, that the rice-wheat rotation of crops was introduced in Punjab. The crops were further pushed by introducing MSPs for paddy, guaranteeing at least a certain amount of revenue to the farmers. From a small 6.9% of cropped area, paddy agriculture grew to about 33.8% in 2006. This rise eventually led to an unfortunate dilemma. Paddy crops by nature demand huge amounts of water and are not suited to the climate of Punjab as compared to other crops, severely endangering the water level in the region. To combat this, the state governments of Haryana and Punjab delayed the date of sowing paddy from May to mid-June under “The Preservation of Sub-Soil Water Act of 2009”, and consequently the date of harvest shifted to early November. Their hope was that the replenished water table (after the Monsoon) would not dwindle under heavy use by the agro-sector. While the system temporarily worked, reducing the rate at which the water table shrunk, it had a catastrophic impact on the atmosphere.
Earlier, when paddy was sown in May, the yields were harvested and therefore stubble burnt in early October whilst the Monsoons were still ongoing. The impact of the rain was such that it wouldn’t allow smoke and polluting particulate matter to travel into nearby regions such as the Delhi NCR. However, in today’s time, farmers are forced to harvest their crops in November, when the rains have ended and wind speed is relatively slow, allowing the smoke to travel and settle down low into the atmosphere causing frighteningly low levels of air quality in the national capital region.
The Government’s Stand and Existing solutions
The State governments of both Haryana and Punjab have taken cognisance of the issue and actively addressed them on multiple occasions. However, after having in-depth conversations with farmers, researchers have pointed to the inadequacy of the decisions taken and a clear lack of strong and targeted implementation as we will observe below.
- In-Situ-Ex-Situ management
The first set of alternatives that exist in front of the farmers is the use of machines to get around stubble burning. Machines such as “Happy seeders”, “paddy straw chopper-cum spreader” provide alternatives to tackle the leftover stubble in-Situ (On site), by chopping it up into very small bits and spreading the by-product on the farm to ready the fields faster. On the other hand machines like “Straw Baler” offer off-site, or ex-situ management options which suggest that we remove the stubble in the form of bales which can then further be sold to biogas plants as extra income for the farmers.
However, all of these options pose some unanswered on-ground problems that are disincentivizing their active use.
- Farmers lack the purchasing capacity that is needed to buy these machines even after taking subsidies into account. The Punjab government offers approximately 50 % subsidy to individual farmers and 80% to cooperatives, however, the amount still adds up to about 75000 rupees for a farmer. Considering that 35.4% of Punjab’s farmers own less than 2 hectares of land, it is naïve to expect that the availability of such machines in the market will benefit farmers on a large scale.
- Punjab requires 50,000 happy seeders to clear 75 lakh acres of paddy fields in the 15 days between paddy harvest and wheat sowing, but the government has distributed a mere 24,000 by 2020. Moreover, farmers have often complained regarding improper sowing, and subsequent low-germination of seeds, especially wheat, when sown with ‘happy seeders’.
- The Supreme court ordered the Punjab and Haryana state governments to give rupees 100/ 100 KG to small farmers to manage the stubble generated. The governments in turn assigned 8,000 nodal officers to see this through. The amount that farmers were expected to receive was about 2,560 rupees/acre but in many situations have not received full payments within stipulated time periods.
- Financial Penalties
The government, seeing a minimal change in the trend of stubble burning, has then turned to monetary penalties for the burning of stubble. In 2019- over 52,000 farm fires were reported in Punjab. The Wire reports that “In approximately 23,000 cases, environmental fines were imposed on farmers, and ‘red entries’ were made against their land records. Farmers were together reportedly fined Rs 6.1 crore.”
However, it seems unfair to fine the farmers practising burning, in the absence of a reasonable and feasible alternative. Farmers use stubble burning because other practices incur additional operating expenses which are not catered for by the allowance they receive from the government. In fact, in many cases, the allowance itself does not reach the farmers within stipulated time periods. Fines create a hostile environment between farmers and local agricultural functionaries, and more than anything, they communicate to the farming community that the state is unwilling to understand their plight.
The long term solution
We continue to fight the pollution that this practice renders unto us every year, through the means of management, fines and other innovative solutions such as the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s development- a solution, named ‘Pusa’ which costs a mere 1000 rupees per acre as compared to the 7000 per acre cost of removing stubble manually. It can decompose crop residue into manure by accelerating the decomposition process. However, such solutions will always remain superficial. We can incentivise the use of modern machines to cut the stalks low so as to reduce the volume of stubble generated, or even employ water conservation techniques to control the pressure on the water table, yet the fact remains that this crop is unsuitable for cultivation in this region.
As discussed above, the problem of pollution from stubble burning arises because of the season in which the exercise takes place, and the nature of paddy as a crop, which isn’t suited to the conditions of Punjab and Haryana. No matter how many schemes the government commissions, the infeasibility to continue growing paddy as the most prominent crop in the region is so huge that it will eclipse any and all moves. The need of the hour is to either revert to the crops Punjab cultivated before the Green revolution, or research potential modern alternatives; whilst nurturing the growth of paddy in other areas which experience very high rainfall. It will not only bring significant improvements to the air quality of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi NCR but also mitigate the severe effects of water deprivation and soil infertility that Punjab experiences today.