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Above: Farmers burn the stubble after harvesting/Photo Courtesy: Greenpeace

Since it does not cause smog, the problems caused by smouldering stubble smoke during April-May might seem less acute, but the damage to the environment is no less

~By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh 

Over a thousand challans have been issued to farmers in Punjab and Haryana for burning stubble following the harvesting of the wheat crop but the number reflects only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Lakhs of acres of land in the two states and adjoining Uttar Pradesh are under cultivation of wheat and paddy and the rampant practice of putting stubble to fire twice a year has been causing immense damage to the environment as well as to the quality of soil.

Stubble burning attracts action under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and also under the provisions of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. However, partly due to political interference and partly due to laxity shown by the officials, the number of challans remains low. Several parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party, come to the rescue of farmers by leading demonstrations against the authorities who come to issue challans.

Stubble burning is more noticeable in winter after the paddy harvest than after the harvest of the wheat crop. Farmers get an almost two-month-long window before sowing paddy, unlike the short window of just about 10 days between the harvesting of paddy and the sowing of the wheat crop in November-December. Thus, while most of the wheat fields are harvested by the end of April, farmers are not in any particular hurry to dispose of or burn the stubble. Some farmers make use of machines or employ labour to weed out stubble during the period. Most cases of stubble burning are reported in the month of May or before the pre-monsoon rains.

The problem of stubble burning during summer is not reported as much as during winters. That’s because the smoke from stubble burning in April-May does not cause smog though it causes the same damage to the environment. From November to December the smoke mixes with fog, causing smog. This leads to disruption of air, rail and road traffic due to poor visibility and gets highlighted in the media. Besides, the warm weather and higher than average wind speed in summer ensures that particulate matter and polluting gases do not accumulate over   the region.

“The damage caused to the environment is similar but the inconvenience caused to the people is much more during winters and, therefore, the issue figures more in the media,” said a senior officer of the Punjab Pollution Control Board. He added that it was important to view stubble burning in both seasons with equal seriousness.

The problem of stubble burning and the consequential damage to the environment, ironically, began only after the advent of combine harvesters a couple of decades ago. The harvesters provided a cheaper and easier option for harvesting crops. The average cost of hiring a harvester is Rs 1,300 per acre while employing labour to manually cut the crop would be several times that price.

The flip side is that these leave behind four to six inches of stubble as the machine can’t cut at the ground level. At the time of sowing, the stubble comes in the way and farmers are unable to sow fields manually. The option is to either cut the stubble by employing labour, which costs about Rs 6,000 per acre, or simply put the stubble to fire. The latter is considered a better option despite the provision of fines, and the fields are put to fire.

The western world, which also introduced use of the combined harvester, has benefited more from the machines because of larger fields. It further developed Turbo Happy Seeder (THS) machines that not only cut and uproot the stubble but can simultaneously sow the next crop. Additionally, the machine can cut the stubble and use it to cover the sown seed.

The farm sizes in India are smaller and, barring a few rich farmers, others can’t dream of owning a combine harvester or a THS machine. While several entrepreneurs have started the business of renting out combine harvesters or cutting the standing crop for a fee, they have shown no interest in adding the THS. This is where the governments can step in to encourage the use of these machines by providing incentives like easy loans.

Following the hue and cry after one of the worst disruptions caused by     pollution from stubble burning late last year, the National Green Tribunal had asked the state governments to take effective steps to control the menace. Even the Supreme Court had asked the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene.

Subsequently, the Punjab government under Captain Amarinder Singh had signed an MoU with a Chennai-based firm to set up 400 plants to convert crop residue into bio-energy. An official government press release had said the plants would become operational before the next harvesting season and prevent a repeat of the environmental hazard triggered by stubble burning.

The release had said that the estimated cost of the plants would be around Rs 10,000 crore. As part of the deal, the Punjab government was supposed to allocate seven acres for each unit on a 33-year lease and provide power at subsidised rates. The firm, in turn, was to build 400 cluster units over the next 10 months. Each plant was supposed to have the capacity to process 50,000 tonnes of paddy straw in a year. However, there is little progress on the ground.

The central government had also sanctioned a total outlay of Rs 665 crore, including Rs 395 crore during the current year, to boost use of THS machinery in Punjab. While granting the amount, the centre had asked the state government to spend Rs 30 crore on spreading awareness and use the rest of the amount for providing subsidy on THS machinery.

However, the government is finding it tough to convince farmers to purchase subsidised machines. According to an official of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, it is now trying to target cooperative societies to purchase the subsidised machines and loan their services to the farmers.

Besides the THS machines, the government is also mulling subsidies on machines, such as the reverse plough, paddy straw chopper/shredder, mulching machines, chopper cutter-cum-spreader and zero till drill.

However, farmers’ organisations say that a majority of farmers are already in distress. These organisations point to the increasing incidents of farm debt which are also resulting in suicides by small and marginal farmers. The low margins and the vagaries of the weather have been taking a heavy toll on the farmers who point out that even if    they obtain loans to purchase the machines, the upkeep and operational costs of the machine would put an extra burden on them.

Several organisations and experts have suggested breaking the wheat-paddy cycle which is also depleting the groundwater resources but in the absence of lucrative alternatives, it would be difficult to break the cycle in the region. Till then, the experts and state governments will have to come out with innovative solutions to tackle the problem of stubble burning and the massive damage it is causing to the atmosphere as well as depletion of nutrients in the ground.

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