The October-November period in Delhi and indeed in the northern part of the country has now come to be dreaded by the residents in these areas due to unbearable air pollution. A significant contributor to this pollution is the burning of crop residue by farmers. This is a widely prevalent practice in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh under the paddy-wheat cropping pattern.

While there are several causes of air pollution and each needs to be addressed, crop residue burning needs immediate attention as pollution touches extremely high levels during the burning season.

To address the situation, the government has earmarked significant amount of funds for both in-situ (where the stubble is managed on site) and ex-situ ( where the stubble is removed from the farm) solutions. However, questions persist around the financial viability and cost to farmers of these solutions.

While some in-situ technological solutions have been well-received, there are others whose widespread adoption seems to have been hindered by misconceptions around their cost effectiveness. It is therefore important to address the concerns and set the record right. Also, the many ex-situ options available can complement in-situ solutions to mitigate the problem holistically.

Many benefits

Regular use of in-situ solutions to avoid paddy residue burning lowers input costs; saves labour, time and the fuel needed to sow the subsequent wheat crop; improves yields; and reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The use of in-situ solutions like Happy Seeder (a tractor-mounted machine that chops and spreads rice residue over the field while planting wheat seeds, thereby obviating the need for farmers to burn their fields) also saves at least one round of irrigation, which is especially important in a region where the water table is fast depleting.

Under the currently prevalent practice, farmers first burn the residue, clear the left-over stubble, prepare their fields, and do multiple tractor runs that cost around ₹4,500-5,500 per acre. This process is in stark contrast to the simple use of the Happy Seeder, where planting of wheat is done in just one pass of tractor and without tillage. This saves diesel, time, labour and water.

Farmers who own Happy Seeders can also earn extra income by renting them to other farmers. The total operational cost of using the Happy Seeder is, therefore, less than in the conventional process of planting the wheat crop. The subsidy on crop residue management machines offered by the government (50 per cent for individual farmers and 80 per cent for custom hiring centres/cooperatives, etc) lowers the capital cost for the farmers and other key stakeholders working on crop residue management.

The paradox is that despite the economics which works in favour of the farmers, there are other issues which have impeded the adoption of in-situ techniques like the Happy Seeder. There is a misconception among a section of farmers that these machines always need to be purchased. That’s not true.

Government agencies have created a network of service delivery/rental models like custom hiring centres and cooperative agricultural societies. Farmers can rely on these for renting Happy Seeders and other in-situ residue management technologies. But it’s not just about access. It’s also about communicating information on how to use the machine and changes that need to be adopted in the associated production practices.

Better education of farmers and all other stakeholders for on-field management of crop residue is critical. Farmers also need to be trained better on the relevant techniques and the use of machines and their maintenance. Besides, policymakers need to recognise that in the long-run, performance-linked incentives are likely to yield better and sustainable outcomes than capital subsidies.

The writer is the Director of Programs & Interim Managing Director, TNC-The Nature Conservancy Centre, New Delhi