Delhi’s air quality is not the sole responsibility of paddy farmers

Sanjay Kaul New Delhi | Updated on November 15, 2019 Published on November 15, 2019

With pollution levels in the National Capital Region (NCR) touching alarming levels, the burning of paddy stubble by farmers of Punjab and Haryana has once again attracted all-round criticism. But, is it fair to blame the farmers alone for this situation? Have the farmers been provided with a suitable alternative? The burning issue needs to be examined from all angles.

Stubble burning is a common practice followed by farmers to ready their fields for wheat sowing.

Paddy is usually harvested through combine harvesters that are cost-effective, but they leave a 15-inch stem behind.

After the harvest, farmers have a window of 15 days to clear the land and burning down the paddy straw is a cost-effective method.

Pros and cons

However, is stubble burning really in the best interests of the farmer? On a closer examination, it is found that apart from the disastrous effect on the atmosphere in and around the region, burning of crop residue affects the soil health. First, it kills all beneficiary micro-organisms and earthworms present in the soil.

Secondly, straw burning leads to loss of essential nutrients which are vital for growth of wheat, resulting in additional fertilizers being used by farmers to replenish the same. Thirdly, weeds are more prone to grow in the field cleared by burning the stubble, and by extension, the soil. Growth of weeds affects the health of the principal crop – therefore, farmers respond by using chemical weedicides that increase the cost of production and aggravates bio-magnification.

Given the additional cost incurred by the farmer, one cannot be certain that stubble burning is a low-cost method. Therefore, apparently, farmers resort to stubble burning as it is the quickest method to get the farm ready for wheat cultivation. However, given the adverse impact of stubble burning, it would perhaps be pertinent to examine the steps taken by the government in this regard.

Government measures

The government has taken several steps to prevent burning of stubble. The State government provides 50 per cent subsidy on the cost of getting the SMS (Straw Management System) fitted to combine harvester but operators are not willing to get this facility as it will decrease efficiency of the engine and increase fuel consumption. Additionally, existing old machines are not capable of handling extra load of the SMS. Given the fact that stubble can be used for power generation, the State governments have also introduced bio-fuel policy that provides attractive fiscal incentive, but making sure that the entrepreneur who benefits from the policy procures bio-waste from the farmers is a challenging task. The government has imposed a complete ban on residue burning and has put satellite imagery mechanism in place, which can pin-point fields where residue is burned. Strict implementation of this law is difficult as it involves dealing with militant farmers’ associations.

Forcing farmers to stop burning residue without providing a suitable alternative that does not pinch their pockets is unfair. Farmers don’t have the sole responsibility of adjusting their practices so that the urban population of Delhi-NCR that engages in innumerable activities that generate pollution don’t suffer.

It is the collective responsibility of the civil society, citizens, farming community and governments to design a practical solution to the problem.

State-sponsored modern machinery that does not leave long straw behind should be deployed on a large scale. Paddy Straw Choppers and Happy Seeders that chop stubble and spread it on the ground as mulch should be used for harvesting. CSR funds of NCR-based firms can be utilised for the same.

Another solution is to incentivise farmers to participate in residue management by making it profitable for farmers to sell paddy stubble to State or private players.

For this, research needs to be undertaken so that paddy straw can be economically converted into power, compost, fodder or any other useful product.

The writer is chairman, NCML. Views are personal.

Published on November 15, 2019
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