From Waste To Wealth: An alternative to Punjab’s crop stubble burning

Dhruv Sawhney September 9 | Updated on September 09, 2021

The Indian Agriculture Research Institute has devised a bio-enzyme that decomposes stubble in 20-25 days by turning it into manure

Currently, paddy cultivation is in full swing in the Indo-Gangetic plains, which cover the Indian States of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. The same farmers who are toiling hard to bring food to our plates will soon engage in the highly unhealthy practice of stubble burning, a common sight in Indian paddy waste management. Though cheaper and faster in the interim, stubble burning is incredibly unsustainable for the environment – it fills the air with soot, dispels nutrients out of the soil, and leads to several other ecological complications.


The hazards of stubble burning

Stubble burning a significant contributor to atmospheric pollution, coming in 3rd after industrial and vehicular emissions. In Asian countries such as China, around 60 per cent of total biomass emissions come from stubble burning. At the same time, globally, it constitutes about one-fourth of the total biomass burning (inclusive of forest fires). The awful haze surrounding India’s national capital region has been directly linked to stubble burning, coinciding with burning periods in October-November. Several health effects have been noticed that arise from the resultant air pollution, ranging from skin and eyes irritation to severe neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases. Prolonged exposure to high pollution also leads to an increase in mortality rates – as per research, the life expectancy of Delhi inhabitants has decreased by about 6.4 years due to their exposure to high levels of pollution.

Burning stubble is equally detrimental to the soil’s health, stripping it of essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). It raises soil temperature to about 42°C, thus displacing or killing important microorganisms up to a depth of about 2.5 cm. It hampers agriculture productivity for pollutants in the atmosphere lead to acid rain and prolonged exposure to particulate pollution favours growths of pests or diseases. The ground-level ozone produced by stubble burning affects the plant’s metabolism, and penetrates and destroys its leaves, causing severe damage to crops in northern parts of India.

Apart from its ill effects on health and the environment, air pollution also costs the economy. As per reports, tourists’ inflow has decreased in Delhi by about 25-30 per cent due to the increase in air pollution. It is estimated that air pollution has a $2.9 trillion economic cost, equating to 3.3 percent of the world’s GDP. 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are from India (mostly from Delhi, UP, and other northern States), and the issue costs the country $150 billion per year on average.

The challenges

Despite being aware of the ill effects of stubble burning, it continues to be the modus operandi for farmers regarding post-harvest waste management. Closer-to-ground interaction reveals that the farmers do not have much choice. Let us take the example of Punjab, where farmers harvest almost 80 percent of the rice crop using combine harvesters which leaves stubble stalks around 15 cm high. For paddy and wheat, the stubble generated is 1.5 times the grain. These are difficult to either remove or incorporate into the soil through manual labour or using farm equipment, both of which are economically unviable for an average farmer. Markets for other methods of paddy residue management are fragmented; for instance, together, the seven biomass power plants in Punjab consume 1 million metric tons of paddy straw annually. They currently lack the capacity to utilise the entire 19.7 million metric tons generated by the farmers of the State. As a result of this lack of infrastructure for waste management, farmers set almost 15.4 million metric tons (out of the 19.7 MMT) on fire in open fields (Punjab government 2017). This method is cheaper and faster for the farmer, helping them clear the land in time before the next cropping cycle.

A viable, sustainable solution

The Indian Agriculture Research Institute has devised a radical solution for stubble burning in the form of a bio-enzyme called PUSA. When sprayed, this enzyme decomposes the stubble in 20-25 days, turning it into manure, further improving the soil quality. It leads to an increase in organic carbon and soil health while significantly reducing the fertiliser expense for the next cropping cycle. Being a sustainable agriculture practice, it also cuts back on the emission of greenhouse gases and prevents the release of toxins and soot into the air. When practised over a while, it considerably increases the soil’s nutrient health and microbial activity, both of which ensure better yield at reduced input costs for the farmers as well as organic produce for the consumers.

While the spray itself is cheap, the spraying needs the deployment of large mechanised sprayers. Farmers need to be made aware of the benefits of the same. In a country where 75 per cent of farmers own a hectare or less, availing these facilities comes at a cost that directly affects their bottom line – an amount they might not be in a position to spare. Depending on the government alone for subsidising sustainable options will come at a heavy environmental price, one which corporations, intellectual think-tanks, and individuals need to realise. This calls for active public-private partnerships, where resources are moved to the grassroots and solutions are deployed in time to benefit society. Farmers should be onboarded into the scheme well ahead of time, have access to the spray and farm mechanisation services post the harvest days, and be incentivised to adopt such healthy sustainable practices.

Stubble burning is one of the many ramifications of the green revolution. It is time to correct it and give our farmers a new and sustainable impetus: A Smart Revolution! Technology will be the primary enabler here, helping to scale reach and extend the benefits of a shared economy to the farmers. With digitisation, shared public-private ownership, and a commitment to enabling sustainable practices and outcomes, we can seed the benefits of sustainable agriculture in farmers’ minds. If done well, soon our soil and our air will be healthier, our water tables replenished, and our farmers will be earning more – the Indian soil will be bearing the proverbial gold from its farm yields once again!

The author is Chief Operating Officer, Nurture Farm

Published on September 09, 2021

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