In about 45 days, large swathes of India's northern plains and the national capital region will begin to be covered in a thick blanket of grey smog. The air quality plummets, turning cities into veritable gas chambers. The smoke from the mass burning of paddy stubbles by farmers of Punjab and Haryana is not only a public health risk especially during the Covid pandemic but also a global embarrassment for India. Why do farmers burn the stubble and why can't we find a scientific solution for what seems a simple enough problem? There maybe some relief at hand this year. The Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) has come up with a bio enzyme that can decompose the rice stubble as an alternative to farmers burning it. IARI has tied up an agritech startup called nurture farm to distribute the bio enzyme to farmers in these states for free. BusinessLine's TR Vivek speaks with Dr Ashok Kumar Singh , the director of IARI and Dhruv Sawhney , the COO of Nurture Farm, to know more. Experts:

What is stubble burning and why do farmers do so?

Ashok Kumar Singh:  The major cropping cycle that is followed in the north-western plains (which includes Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh) is rice followed by the wheat crop. Generally, the rice varieties take about 160 to 165 days to cultivate. Hence, there isn't much gap between the period when the rice is harvested and the wheat is sowed. If the sowing is delayed, the wheat output comes down significantly. Therefore, farmers resort to burning paddy stalks and get the fields ready for when quickly. This happens towards the end of October and the first week of November. 


Do the farmers benefit from this?

Ashok Kumar Singh:  Burning will not benefit farmers, it only causes air pollution. It poses a health risk not only to the people residing in and around the farms, but also to those living away from these areas. There are, however, many alternatives for the farmer. One method is baling. You can make bales by using machine balers to remove the straw from the field. If the straw is not removed, the farmers would have to opt for the in-situ management of paddy straw (i.e manage paddy straw while in the field). There is also the option of a happy seeder, a machine that is designed to take up sowing in the standing paddy. Super seeder is another method that can be used for facilitating the sowing of wheat when paddy strides are there in the field. To facilitate this, we have introduced the Pusa Decomposer.

What is the Pusa Decomposer? How does it help to be an alternative to the matchstick?

Ashok Kumar Singh:  The Pusa Decomposer comprises of seven species of fungi. Most of these fungi live in the soil and are known for their ability to decompose paddy straw. After isolating them and purifying them, we study their efficacy on decomposing paddy straw. Then, based on their efficacy, we select the seven species. This is sprayed on the paddy straw after it is harvested. The decomposer is a complementary solution, it is not a substitute for machines. This is a long-term sustainable solution for keeping good soil health. People have to understand it’s long-term benefit. I would not call it a magic because it takes 25 to 30 days to decompose the straw.

Tell me about nurture farms involvement with this. What is the idea behind partnering with IARI?

Dhruv Sawhney:  Nurture farm has come into existence with one single goal helping build farmer resilience. We have already got over a million farmers on the platform. Our mission was to identify the best technology available and we identified the Pusa Decomposer as a great bio soil friendly technology. I think the challenge was that it was available in a capsule form which required two weeks of preparation by the farmers and the systems to disperse it across their fields weren’t readily available.

Does the farmer has to pay or is this something you don't charge farmer for?

Dhruv Sawhney:  We are not charging farmer anything for this, this is an absolutely free service. But, we are not doing this purely out of charity we are doing this to make this a sustainable and a successful transition to sustainable agricultural practices.

What are your targets and ambitions in terms of number of farmers and areas of land that you hope to reach starting this year and going forward?

Ashok Kumar Singh:  Punjab grows rice on three million hectares of land and Haryana grows rice in 1.2 million hectares of land. About 15 to 20 million tonnes of paddy biomass is produced on three million hectares of land, and that is huge. We have been measuring it very regularly from 2016 onwards. The number of fire spots have now come down. In 2018, there was a reduction of almost 50 per cent because of Government intervention by means of machine substitutions. Machines were provided for baling, happy seeders and super seeders were used but still a lot of paddy straw is being burnt. It is very important that we create awareness among farmers about the long-term solution for this.

Should Punjab and Haryana be growing rice at all?

Ashok Kumar Singh:  I would like to say that we must diversify agriculture in Punjab. There are couple of options available, for example, soybean, in kharif season particularly, and maize are very viable options. Soybean and maize together can also address the problem of edible oil. We are importing oil worth about Rs 60,000 to 70,000 crore annually. Soybean can very well be grow in Punjab, for a slightly longer duration, and will yield better than the varieties grown in Central India. This will resolve many problems in one go -- the problem of burning, the labour problem (in case of rice cultivation) and then the water problem - every kilo of rice requires about 3000 to 4000 litres of water.