The desperation is clear. “Do you want to wait till people start dying? People are gasping for breath,” a fuming Supreme Court had asked the Central Pollution Control Board. This was in mid-November. The Apex court has been listening to a petition seeking action against burning of paddy straw by farmers, particularly in Punjab.
With sowing of rabi crops now almost complete, the burning of paddy stubbles has ended. And after high pollution had choked Delhi for a number of days following Diwali, life in the National Capital Region is also back to normal.
This has become an annual ritual. For the past 10 years or so I have seen the nation suddenly waking up to the scourge of paddy straw burning, particularly in Punjab, with satellite images from NASA being used to shift blame to farmers for adding to the already high pollution levels in New Delhi. Soon after the harvest of paddy, farmers have been resorting to burning the paddy stubbles in a bid to clear the crop field making way for the sowing of the next winter crop, primarily wheat. The window available before the next sowing is so short that farmers find putting the crop residues to fire as the best available option.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt. And as the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had observed: “It is conceded that 70 per cent of the land covered by agricultural activity was put on fire by the farmers of Punjab who burnt farm residue,” further adding that stubble burning shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70 per cent. “The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide rises by 7 per cent and 2.1 per cent respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems. Also, it was stated that soil loses a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur, the total loss of nutrients being estimated at 1.5 lakh tones per annum.
Coming down heavily against the governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab for its failure to take immediate steps to stop crop residues burning, the NGT has now even asked Punjab government to withdraw incentives, including grant of free power, to farmers who were caught burning paddy stubbles after the harvest. Earlier, it had directed state governments to launch criminal proceedings against farmers, impose a fine and a jail term of six months for those farmers who are caught burning the paddy stubbles.
I always thought it was rather unfair to lodge an FIR and impose a fine against farmers for burning the stubbles. The problem of paddy straw burning has actually been created by the combine harvesters and the blame is being very conveniently shifted to farmers. Earlier when farmers and farm workers would manually harvest paddy, there was hardly an instance of stubble burning. But with the advent of combine harvesters, the burning of crop residues has increased in direct proportion to the area being harvested by combines. It is therefore a problem created by a technology and going by the polluter pays principle it is the technology provider who should be actually asked to come up with a technological solution.
In case the technology provider in unable to do so, then the technology provide should be directed to pay for the resulting pollution, which in this case is the cost for environmental pollution resulting from stubble burning. Combine machines cut the spike of the paddy plant leaving the stem intact. Since cattle do not feed on paddy straw, farmers find it difficult to replough as the stubble doesn’t decompose. Farmers have no time to remove the stubble from the fields due to paucity of time since they have to prepare the land for wheat sowing. Moreover, it involves costs, something around Rs 5,000 per acre extra, which the governments are reluctant to pay. At a time when the average income per acre in Punjab does not exceed Rs 3,400 it is futile to expect farmers to incur double the cost for clearing the fields.
All the solutions being advocated to stop the stubble burning are very expensive, involve a number of machines, and are time consuming. In fact it is shocking to see the kind of solutions being put forward by the state governments before the National Green Tribunal. Desperate to suggest a remedial measure so as to avoid the court’s wrath, I find the suggested technological interventions to be bordering stupidity. Most of the solutions being suggested are simply based on what some progressive entrepreneurs are proposing. Since every disaster is a business opportunity, I find a number of meaningless but expensive solutions being forwarded.
The most common technological intervention being proposed is to promote the use of a Happy Seeder machine. Since the machine costs around Rs 1.20 lakh, it is proposed to enhance the subsidy component to 90 per cent, from the existing 50 per cent. While the Happy Seeder manufacturers will certainly laugh all the way to the bank, the fact remains that nine out of ten farmers using Happy Seeder machines actually burn the stubble before using the machine. Happy seeder machine, which actually is meant for zero tillage, will certainly not be helpful as the stubble collects at its base making it difficult for the machine to operate.
I find it amusing to find the Punjab government for instance drawing up a Rs 6,600-crore plan to use a set of machines to get rid of the problem. In addition to Happy Seeder machine, it involves using Straw Reaper, Chopper, Reverse plough, a Baler and a Rotavator. This is a prohibitively expensive proposition and would end up only draining the exchequer. Moreover, Rotavator also needs the use of a heavy duty tractor, exceeding 60 HP, which not many farmers have.
The easiest of the solution lies in directing the combine-harvesters to come up with a modification that allows it simultaneously to cut the paddy straw from the base of the plant. The combine harvesters can either come with a baler machine attached or incorporate the baler in the machine itself that cuts the paddy straw from the base of the plant and converts it into bales. The combine harvester should thereby provide grain and at the same time turn the straw into bales which can then be sold by farmers. The machine will help turn paddy straw into an economic option for the farmer.
If you are thinking this kind of technological solution will require more time for the combine harvesters to make for a technological improvement, let me tell you a leading manufacturer of combine harvesters – Canada’s John Deere has in partnership with the US-based Hillco Technologies – already developed a next generation machine for harvesting corn wherein the corn stems are baled in one simple step. The Hillco Single Pass Round Bale system which allows the combine harvester to harvest and bale in one pass is what is required for paddy harvest and bale. I am sure the combine manufacturers will be able to provide this amendment for the next paddy harvesting season.
(Writer is a researcher, columnist, author, crusader on the issues of food and agricultural policy. He can be followed on his blog ‘Ground Reality’)