Stubble burning is a practice of removing agricultural waste from the field by setting on fire the straw stubble (parali) that is left on the land after harvesting of grains like paddy, wheat etc in order to prepare it for the next round of seeding.

Every year, stubble burning peaks during the onset of winter around October- November as this is the harvesting period of paddy crops and the residue left behind needs to be cleared to sow wheat. Stubble burning across Delhi, NCR particularly by farmers in north India is seen as a major cause of air pollution in Delhi. Each year, air pollution levels rise and air quality index reaches a ‘severe’ and ‘hazarduous’ level.

Crops such as rice and wheat account for large volumes of crop residues in India. Apart from wheat and paddy, sugarcane leaves are mostly burnt on fields. Due to shortage of labour and time, when paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher particularly by large farmers in Punjab, the machine leaves behind a significant length of straw and stubble on the field. This prevents other machines from sowing wheat seeds and thus farmers often burn the stubble to quickly eliminate the paddy stubble.

One of the major problems of burning of crop residues are pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that leads to global warming: These directly contribute to environmental pollution and are also responsible for the haze in Delhi and melting of Himalayan glaciers. Soil degradation is another problem due to burning of crop residues. Burning paddy straw radiates heat that kills fungus and bacteria that is essential for soil fertility. The pollutants dispersed due to stubble burning in the atmosphere eventually affect air quality and people’s health by forming a thick blanket of smog. The smoke apart from causing irritation to eyes, also lead to breathing difficulties and lung diseases.

The way forward

The solution to the problem of stubble burning lies in exploring sustainable farm practices with an active role of the government in regulation and framing policies. In recent years, the government has developed a framework and action plan for effective prevention and control of stubble burning. But a major challenge that lies with these schemes is their successful implementation and enforcement.

Apart from this, here are some other measures to curb stubble burning:

(i) Innovative farm technologies: If farmers wish to remove stubble manually, they will need to spend at least ₹6,000-7,000 per acre. To reduce these costs, as well as save labour and time, new innovative farm technologies have been introduced by the government. One of the recent innovations that could help farmers to manage crop residues effectively is by employing agricultural machines like Happy seeder, Rotavator, Baler, Paddy straw chopper etc. But these machines are too costly. Therefore, government could provide adequate subsidies to make this machinery affordable for farmers.

(ii) New and Improved seed varieties: Recent literature has pointed out that the use of new and improved varieties of rice and wheat crop particularly short duration crop varieties like Pusa Basmati-1509 and PR-126, could be seen as a measure to overcome the problem of stubble burning as they mature quickly and also improve the quality of the soil.

(iii) Another possible solution is to use Pusa-bio-decomposer, developed by the scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, which turns crop residue to manure in 15-20 days by accelerating the decomposition process.

(iv) Biogas plants can curb crop burning and prevent pollution. These plants are installed by the government under the ‘waste to energy mission’ and they generate bio-gas by utilising crop waste such as rice straw through bio-methanation technology.

(v) Sustainable farm management practices: Other measures suggested by agriculturists and scientists include composting, production of biochar, in-situ management with mechanical intensification. These measures could not only manage the crop residues but could also help in controlling GHG emissions.

(vi) Educating and empowering the stakeholders: Educating and empowering the farming community could be an important step to make a significant impact. Farmers feel that they are responsible only for growing foodgrains and the crop residue is not their responsibility. This thinking should be changed and farmers should feel responsible for crop residues and this is should be brought through awareness campaigns.

The government should act as an enabler by spreading awareness about the pros and cons of each option, so as to eliminate confusion and ease the adoption of new technologies by removing socio-economic barriers so that these new and innovative technologies can be accessed by small and marginal farmers.

All these efforts could help in providing support to the farmer and could be effective in controlling stubble burning along with environmental pollution in the country.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade