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India takes new steps to kick old habits of burning farm waste

Bloomberg | | | Updated on: Dec 30, 2021
image caption

Bio-enzyme developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute breaks down straw and turns it into fertiliser within three weeks

Sanju is on a mission. For weeks, she has travelled from village to village, urging farmers to stop burning stubble from harvested rice crops near New Delhi.

As winds slow during the winter months, a poisonous haze collects over northern India. During the worst stretches, air pollution can reach multiple times the global safety threshold. Stubble burning is one of the leading causes of the smog.

Bio-enzyme

Sanju, who goes by one name, is among several hundred gig workers in the State of Haryana — all of them women — trying to reverse that trend. She encourages farmers to spray a white substance on their fields to decompose crop residue, rather than set it ablaze. Her work forms part of one of the most ambitious attempts to eliminate stubble burning in India.

“It’s a win-win situation for farmers,” said Dhruv Sawhney, Chief Operating Officer of nurture.farm, a digital platform promoting sustainable agriculture that is overseeing the project. In addition to hiring on-the-ground messengers like Sanju, his group provided the decomposer for free to 25,000 farmers this year.

Sawhney said the new organic spray, developed by State-run Indian Agricultural Research Institute, has helped prevent farmers from burning over 385,000 acres of rice paddies. The low-cost bio-enzyme, called Pusa Decomposer, breaks down straw and turns it into fertiliser.

Fertiliser shortage

Over the next three years, nurture.farm plans to expand its coverage area to 5.7 million acres at an annual cost of ₹6 billion ($80 million). Even if the company starts charging for the powder, many farmers say they would continue using it, in part because they end up saving on fertiliser costs. India is being squeezed by a global shortage of fertilisers.

“I don’t mind spending a nominal amount on this but it should be reasonable. Otherwise, I will again resort to my earlier practice of burning the crop,” said Anil Kalyan, who used the decomposer on 40 acres of his farm. This year marked the first time in four decades he has not burned the stubble.

The bio-enzyme breaks down crop residue in about three weeks on average and increases organic carbon in the soil. On some farms, crops disintegrated even faster, within about a week, an encouraging sign as more farmers use the decomposer, Sawhney said.

Deteriorating air quality

Farmers are often blamed for north India’s terrible air quality. Every winter, smoke from stubble burning mixes with construction dust and industrial emissions to produce a toxic cocktail that blots out the sun, grounds flights and overwhelms hospitals. The haze lingers in the region’s trough-like topography for weeks.

But political will to find a solution has dragged, largely because farmers lacked a cost-effective alternative. Technologies like the Happy Seeder, a machine that sows seeds while simultaneously removing straw and depositing it over the fields as mulch, are too cumbersome and expensive. There are also plants that use the straw to make ethanol, but there’s not enough capacity currently.

So far, farmers say, the decomposer is a promising breakthrough.

Satinder Sharma, who harvests wheat in Haryana, expects his yield to improve by 10 per cent this year. He spends less now on fertilisers such as urea and diammonium phosphate, a boost to his earnings. A bonus, he said, is doing his part to ensure clean air for the next generation.

The decomposer will “save the soil and plants next to the fields and the produce will be better for health,” he said. “It was a curse of nature to burn the crops and we were contributing to that.”

Published on December 30, 2021

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