By Pravir Kumar
The whole country is concerned about the thick smog enveloping North India, especially the National Capital Region (NCR). Apart from factors like vehicular pollution, construction and industrial activities, much of the blame for the present situation is being put on the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, who are being prosecuted and fined for burning agricultural crop (paddy) residue commonly called the “stubble”.
As the awareness about the serious ill-effects of poor air quality on health is spreading, the manufacturers of air purifiers and respiratory masks are witnessing bumper sales. A few IIT-Delhi students have come up with a brilliant innovation, the “Nasofilter”, which uses nano-technology and can be stuck on one’s nose to filter out the toxic gases and particles. Some other solutions being touted about suggest use of plants like the money plant’, which absorb the polluting gases and improve indoor air quality.
Another theory which is floating around these days as the main cause of the present crisis due to stubble burning, is late transplantation and consequently late harvesting of paddy in Punjab and Haryana (allegedly due to a conspiracy by the Monsanto company and the Laws enacted by Punjab for preservation of ground water), which results in burning of paddy crop residue (stubble) by the farmers in the end of October or November.
By this time due to onset of winter and wind speed slowing down, the smog created by the burning stubble is not dispersed or swept away. Further, with drop in temperature a “Thermal Inversion Layer” is formed about a few hundred feet above the ground, which blocks the pollutant gases and particles from escaping into the higher atmosphere, thus turning Delhi and the NCR into a virtual gas chamber. Therefore, although early transplantation and early harvesting of paddy by the farmers would definitely mitigate the problem to some extent in the NCR (by shifting the problem elsewhere), it would not solve the core problem, as the farmers would still be burning the stubble and emitting toxic gases and pollutant particles into the atmosphere.
The solutions being discussed and the various innovations and gadgets can only mitigate the problem marginally and would provide limited personal protection. As such, these measures can only provide some symptomatic relief like a pain killer. They do not cure the main disease by solving the core problem of stubble burning and resultant pollution. The citizens of the country, including the poorest who cannot afford these gadgets and have to work outdoors, deserve clean air to breathe as a matter of their “Right to Live” , granted to us by the Constitution.
Therefore, in order to search for solutions, we have to first analyse the root cause of the problem. The question that needs to be asked is: “Why the stubble (crop residue) is being left behind in the first place, that the farmers are compelled to burn?” We also have to analyse and understand why this problem is so chronic in Northern India only, whereas paddy is being grown in large areas of other States as well (e.g. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh etc.).
The root cause of the present stubble burning problem in Northern India is actually the extensive use of big ‘Combine Harvesters’ in large parts of Punjab, Haryana & Western UP, since the labour cost for manual harvesting is rather high. Although, these big combine harvesters lead to huge savings for the farmers in terms of labour costs and time, these machines cut the plant and harvest the grains from the top part of the plant, thus leaving behind a much longer stem part of the plant, that remains standing on the ground. On the contrary, in traditional manual harvesting by sickle ( Hansiya ), the plant is chopped off from the bottom, leaving only a very small root part of the plant underneath the ground.
The farmers in other parts of the country who are doing manual harvesting, in order to prepare their fields for the next Rabi crop, simply plough the land after harvesting and fill the field with water for a few days, during which period the roots of the plants get decomposed and actually enrich the soil by increasing its fertility. On the other hand, in areas of Northern India where harvesting is done by combine harvesters, due to the larger size of the stubble left behind by these machines, it is not possible for this stubble to mix well with the soil and get fully decomposed as fertile soil during the limited period available between the Kharif and Rabi crops. Research also shows that the productivity of the wheat, which is sown after paddy is harvested, declines substantially with late sowing, therefore, the farmers are in a hurry to get their fields cleared quickly. In such a scenario, as a short cut the farmers, who are keen to prepare their fields quickly for the next Rabi (usually wheat) crop and further since it is un-economical for them to get the stubble removed manually, simply burn it on the field itself.
This situation is leading to a double whammy. On one hand by burning the crop residue, we are wasting this precious bio-mass which could be used either as cattle feed or as fuel. On the other hand, we are creating environmental hazard of smog and turning the country into a gas chamber.
Having identified the root cause of the problem, the solutions are not difficult to find. Some suggestions for solving the problem are being discussed below.
- It is both impractical (in view the large number of farmers, running into millions) and also unjust to blame the farmers for the stubble burning. The farmers are not criminals, they are simply victims of the faulty farm mechanisation technology that is made available to them by the machine manufacturers. Therefore, instead of penalising and prosecuting the farmers, our focus should be on developing and improving the design of Combine Harvesters that do not leave the stubble behind. This can be easily done by the Combine Harvester manufacturers by slightly tweaking the design of their machines with a modified cutter that chops of the plant from the bottom, nearer to the base and does not leave behind the stubble. (The morale of the story is that if you want a clean shave, use a sharp razor and not a trimmer that leaves behind stubble.) The government on its part should strictly regulate and allow only such Combine Harvesters to function that conform to the laid down standards of stubble size.
- Incentivise the farmers for not burning the stubble, by providing economic value for this crop residue or stubble, which may be converted into either cattle feed or fuel (in the form of briquettes). The government may consider setting up “Agri- waste Collection Centres” alongside the “Paddy Purchase Centres”, where the farmers may sell their agri-waste at a reasonable price and earn some additional income and are not tempted to burn it. Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) or Farmers’ Co-operatives may be supported for purchasing of this agri-waste/ crop residue from the farmers and later selling it to industries that convert it into cattle feed or fuel briquettes.
- The industries which are converting this agri-waste/crop residue into wealth in the form of cattle feed or fuel briquettes, may also be suitably incentivised and subsidised.
- Encourage and incentivise the farmers to go for early paddy, so as to give them enough time to harvest and thereafter prepare their fields for the next Rabi crop.
- Encourage and educate the farmers to go for alternate fruit and vegetable crops, instead of paddy, that not only consume less water but also give better economic returns. It makes no sense to promote crops like Paddy (that consume a lot of water), in water scarce areas.
Pravir Kumar, a gold medalist from IIT-Kanpur, is a retired IAS officer of 1982 batch of UP cadre, who has served as Secretary, Govt. of India as well as Chairman, Board of Revenue, Chief Secretary and Agriculture Production Commissioner in Uttar Pradesh. Views are personal.