Never let a Good crisis go waste

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Never let a Good crisis go waste

The 500 Million Tonnes of biomass burnt in open fields every year, is incomplete combustion, resulting in air pollution. Stubble burning to clear the standing biomass is disastrous for soil fertility. What options are available to farmers and the government to diffuse the crisis?

Manish Shukla

On 21st September, 2017, the Delhi High Court issued an order to ban the farm practice of burning the agro-waste in the fields that it creates air pollution and a gas chamber like situation in NCR Delhi. Farmers continuing with this practice will be punished and fined. Arguably, agitated farmers’ unions are  planning a protest on 10th Dec, 2017 to challenge and defy the order as they have no other way for disposal of agro-waste since it is a time and  cost impediment for them to plant the Kharif crop. Farmers are demanding a compensation of Rs. 200/- quintal of agro-waste, else they will cordon off the village, burn the biomass  and not pay the fines that the government may impose.

The 500 Million Tonnes of biomass burnt in open fields every year is incomplete combustion, resulting in smoke and particulate matter being released in the atmosphere causing air pollution, a serious health hazard. The current practice of stubble burning to clear the standing biomass is the most disastrous method, since it destroys the fertility of the soil, by killing the farmer’s best friend, earthworms, and also the entire ecosystem of micro-organisms.      

The Central and State have not yet responded to this  and seem to be waiting for this to develop into a full blown agitation and crisis situation. Surely the government is aware about  the issue but it seems various ministries are bumbling around, looking the other way, hoping the crisis makes landfall in someone else’s domain.

Does it make more sense to set up a high powered inter-ministerial committee for it could be in the domain of any of the following ministries, directly or indirectly: Agriculture(farmer issue), Fertilizer (organic fertilizer), Finance (compensation issue),  Home (agitation= law & order issue), Environment & Climate change (pollution issue),  Health (gas chamber), Law (court order), Revenue (collection of fines), Renewable Energy ( Biomass ), Power (power shortage), Industries (Make in India &  Manufacturing), Commerce(business), Human Resources (employment), Education (academic research), Skill Development (Training), I&B (information broadcasting ), Science  &  Technology (ICT App development). Apologies, if inadvertently some ministries have been missed out!

Redefining Waste

Conventionally, waste is defined as something unwanted, unusable, worthless, defective, of no use, undesirable. What a wasted definition, since it passes the blame on the product, rather than the ineptness of the user!

But when one defines “waste as a resource whose use & value we do not know or overlook”! It puts the onus on us: our ignorance, our laziness & our incapability of putting things to better use. After, all one man’s waste is another man’s treasure! Nothing says it better than a signage outside an antique shop, ‘we buy your junk & sell it as antiques’!

The so-called Agro-waste  is actually a national treasure, if we choose to look at & treat it differently. Instead of calling it agro-waste, we should just call it, biomass, by its correct nomenclature. Biomass utilization has the potential to solve some of our most pressing problems & looming crisis.

Here are simple solutions to consider.

1. Biomass is Renewable Green Power:

When biomass is sun dried, shredded to bits and compacted with the use of simple machines, it becomes a biomass briquette/pellet. Biomass briquettes have a calorific value ranging from 3,200kC/kg to 4,500kC/kg., a very rich source for generating decentralized green energy for a power starved nation. Biomass compares favourably to other fuel sources in calorific value, costs a fraction and is easily available. Coal is 5,000kC/kg at Rs.9/kg, while Diesel/Kerosene 10,300kC/kg at Rs60/litre, LPG 10,800kC/kg at Rs.35/kg. A steady supply of processed biomass of 4,000kC/kg at Rs. 5/kg is a blessing in disguise.

Biomass when processed & burned in a controlled environment results in a thermo-chemical reaction that generates Producer gas, a rich combination of combustible Hydrogen & Methane. With the help of a forced draft, a fan in simple terms, it generates a powerful blue/orange flame, almost no smoke, and very little ash content. The ash is rich in potash and has applications in the farm and industry, depending on the biomass used.

As per government records, India has approx.  6,000 MW biomass based power plants comprising 4,950 MW grid-connected and 995 MW off-grid power plants.

 Out of the total grid connected capacity, major share comes from bagasse cogeneration and around 115 MW is from waste to energy power plants. Whereas off-grid capacity comprises 650 MW non-bagasse cogeneration, mainly as captive power plants, about 18 MW biomass gasifier systems being used for meeting electricity needs in rural areas, and 164 MW equivalent biomass gasifier systems deployed for thermal applications in industries.

India is the second largest producer of sugarcane, with 4.9 million hectares under cultivation, with a 12-18 month harvest gestation. The sugar industry has traditionally used bagasse biomass as a fuel for their own requirements, and has now has become the largest biomass energy generator, purely because biomass is a by-product of its own in-house input material.

India is also the largest producer of cotton, with 11 million hectares under cultivation and groundnuts with 5 million hectares. The calorific value of biomass generated from other short duration crops of 3-9 month gestation, grown across India, is richer than that of sugarcane (3,800kC/kg): cotton stalks(4,700kC/kg), groundnut shells (4,200kC/kg), wheat (3,800kC/kg), rice (3,000kC/kg), maize (3,500kC/kg),bajra (3,900kC/kg),  gram/daals (3,800kC/kg), soya (4,200kC/kg), mustard (4,200kC/kg). Source: Indian Institute of Science:

While some of the biomass is utilized as cattle feed & domestic firewood, a majority of the biomass with high calorific value, not suitable for cattle feed especially, cotton stalk, soya, lentil, rice husk, is burnt to waste. This practice is what farmers want to continue, which the court has now banned.

The 500 Million Tonnes of biomass abundantly available, across the year, is a national treasure and the richest resource that could help generate over 20,000MW. It is not only the cheapest, most abundantly available source of power compared to traditional sources of polluting hydrocarbons eg: coal, but also, it costs a fraction of the infrastructure investments required for other renewable sources such as solar and wind energy.

Small ticket investments are required in setting up small, independent, decentralized, biomass power generation units. Priority financial loans, ranging from as little as Rs.10Lakhs/10kW, to Rs.5Crores/1MW plant, made available to village entrepreneurs, will encourage the local utilization of biomass. These small power plants can light up the lives of the billion rural residents by providing them cheap, uninterrupted electricity. Availability of power will empower rural entrepreneurs and nurture an ecosystem for village industries.

In the rural scenario, biomass briquettes are the ideal energy source to power decentralized local businesses such as dhabas, restaurants, bakeries, school canteens for their midday meals scheme, brick & pottery kilns, boilers at hospitals, laundries etc and all industries using coal. Local coal merchants & dealers will make ideal distributors & evangelists to promote biomass fuels.

For large industries, biomass is an ideal alternative fuel to coal, diesel, furnace oil, LPG/CNG, especially in food processing, pharmaceuticals, tyre, textiles, and power-generation. Industrial users universally agree biomass is a great source of cheap energy that they would like to adopt, if only the supply is guaranteed, since fuel prices directly impact their cost structures & bottom-line.

Norway, which has been successfully recycling its waste & garbage into power, is now facing a shortage of waste to process & is actively considering shipping imports from across the world. Meanwhile, our government’s website offers a list the barriers for adoption of a valuable resource, instead of articulating solutions. If the government, with all its machinery & resources at its command cannot come up with simple policy initiatives to encourage better resource utilization, who will?

India, as one of the largest tropical & fertile land under cultivation in the world, as one of the largest agricultural producer in the world, as one of the largest producer of a variety of biomass in the world, as one of the largest importers of energy & fuel in the world, as one of the poorest country in the world, the amount of biomass being systematically wasted around us, is just colossal, unforgivable and a curse of ignorance!

2. Biomass is Nature’s Richest Organic Fertilizer & Soil Conditioner:

With the advent of the Green Revolution in India, 50 years ago, farmers, big & small have adopted Urea as the primary fertilizer, to boost soil fertility & crop productivity. In the process, the wisdom of tradition techniques of enriching the soil has been abandoned, with disastrous results. Urea is a nitrogen rich fertilizer, meant for industrial agriculture. It not only reduces the ability of the soil to absorb & retain water, but also upsets the balance of micro organisms in the soil that help regenerate the soil fertility with nourishing vitamins & minerals. As a result, the plants are less healthy, have lower immunity and become more susceptible to diseases, necessitating the use of more fertilizers, pesticides & water, making agriculture an unviable, loss making proposition.

Biomass, when mixed with other green biomass, animal manure and water, decomposes with nature’s bacterial activity into the best natural organic fertilizer that enriches the soil with all the necessary nutrients. There are various bacterial inoculants available that help speed up the decaying process and make the biomass worthy of use within a fortnight. Infact, new biological inoculants have been developed that can effectively convert harmful processed waste, bio-waste, medical waste and municipal waste into top grade fertilizers, within a short period of time.

While farmers in developing countries are doing a tightrope walk, on how to allocate biomass to for energy production, cattle feed & organic manure, in India, farmers are threatening an agitation to allow them to burn the residue!

The government’s proactive role is required to broadcast & promote natural scientific practices among farmers to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and its own burden of subsidies. The government should get each village-panchayat to allocate 2-5 acres of its non-arable or fallow wasteland to allow farmers to dump their unutilized biomass. This land can be converted into a model farm to showcase the processing of biomass into fertilizers, and how to enrich & rejuvenate the soil health to produces higher yields. These field trials are an excellent opportunity to put academic researches & pilots of our top institutions to good use through practical do-and-show examples to ensure rapid adoption. And there lies the proof of the pudding!

3. Create Thousands of Value-Added Products from Biomass

The above two examples of bio-fuel & bio-fertilizer are only to demonstrate the utility of the biomass, to serve the needs of the farmers & villagers locally, with minimal efforts & investments. However, there are thousands of other products that can be produced by processing the variety & abundant biomass.

Products made from biomass are inherently eco-friendly and decompose easily. Processing provides the access to thousands of precious, naturally abundant chemicals & compounds, resins, minerals, paper, pulp, board, bio-energy, bio-plastics, bio-fertilizers, soil conditioners, bio-char etc that have a large local & international market. These products are great substitutes for otherwise harmful chemicals, plastics, expensive wood & metals.

India needs to extract the full value of our agri-produce resources, by processing it into value added items. While resources of energy, technology know-how, equipments & manpower are available in abundance, making scarce capital available, on a priority basis to villages, would lead to a boom in local businesses, employment and prosperity for young India.

The government has two options to respond to the farmer’s agitation & High Court directive.

a. Sit quiet, do nothing. Stifle the agitation by hiding behind the court order, professing helplessness. Let the problem fester & earn the wrath of the already traumatized crisis-ridden farming community, till the next elections.  OR

b. Consider the court directive to an opportunity for creating lasting impact & change. A proactive response would be to encourage & incentivise new agri-processing business initiatives that will open new doors of opportunity for better resource utilization across the nation. And put India on the path to progress & growth.


Are we as a nation, destined to lament our fate and keep lurching from one crisis to another?  Or, are we determined to capitalize on our problems creatively, with economic policy solutions and incentives, to never let a good crisis go to waste?

(Views in this article is a personal opinion of the writer. He is a management consultant to global corporations, and have researched the agricultural value-chain in-depth. He can be reached at )