Why stubble ‘management’ matters

Suresh Babu | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on December 21, 2017
And the fields burn: A farmer burns stubbles at his paddy field on the outskirts of Amritsar despite the National Green Tribunal imposing a ban on crop stubble-burning in 2005

A burning issue Farmers in North India need to be sensitised on better managing post-harvest stubble   -  PTI

Incentivising alternative uses of stubble and promoting technological solutions to recycle it can help check pollution

Delhi’s air pollution is not only a problem of political will, but also a multidisciplinary problem where solutions lie in providing the right incentives to stakeholders. These incentives can help in mitigating the long-term consequences of the toxic air North India is breathing and addressing the underlying structural deficiencies.

Stubble burning by farmers in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana along with construction dusts and high traffic has aggravated air pollution in Delhi and surrounding cities. This coincides almost each year with the onset of foggy winters in North India. Stubble burning is not new to North India, despite it being banned by the Punjab Pollution Control Board.

But as with most other policies and laws that fail notwithstanding the lack of enforcement, the huge savings — financial and time — that accrue to the farmers from violating the stubble burning ban far outweigh any intended benefits from its outlawing. Instead, the right mix of technological and economic incentives can create economic opportunities incentivising farmers and other stakeholders to come together to stop the practice of stubble burning.

Help them sell it

North India could take a leaf out of South’s experience, following its lead on ‘stubble management’. In most rice growing regions of Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, farmers get economic value for paddy straw by selling it as cattle feed — income from paddy straw sales could significantly boost farmer’s total income. In certain cases, farmers grow low-yield varieties of paddy exclusively for cattle feed.

Both Punjab and Gujarat are home to sizeable dairy co-operatives, and there is a huge agri-business opportunity for the farmers in the region — partnering with these cooperatives, trading nutrition-rich stubble for livestock and unlocking a potential value-added chain.

Punjab and Haryana have long taken the easy path of turning a blind eye towards this issue, but an investment by State governments’ in ramping up mechanisation with built-in incentives for farmers will help generate additional income for farmers in the region, creating additional employment opportunities. In much of the US and Europe, crop stubble is cut into bales, and is a much sought after by mushroom growers, livestock owners, and for pulp.

Crop stubble can be repurposed to create another value chain around low-cost, eco-friendly wood products, and this is where the private sector and its expertise can be roped in to create necessary infrastructure and transport links to connect the farms to retail markets.

Punjab is home to some of the biggest names in farm and farm equipment industry with an existing dealer network across the agricultural North India and a leading agricultural university, which create ripe conditions for public-private partnerships to not only educate the farmers but also provide solutions through technological and economic incentives.

Innovative solutions

According to media reports, Punjab Agricultural University’s Super-Straw Management System (SSMS), an equipment that can be fit on a combine harvester and together costs nearly $31,000 (over ₹20 lakh), works to cut, take out stubble, drill wheat seeds, and evenly deposit any loose crop residue over the farm.

From soil management perspective too, using modern technology is beneficial for improving soil quality. SSMS deposits crop residue over the farm, adding organic matter over time, retaining nutrients, water and replenishing soil structure. The university reported higher sales of the equipment, and lower incidents of crop burning compared to the previous year, which indicates a willingness on part of farmers to adopt a mutually beneficial modern technology. However, it would still require a massive thrust from the central and State governments, working out an incentive structure that considerably brings down the adoption costs, getting the much-needed buy-in from farmers.

With nearly 120-130 million people affected in North India due to air pollution, the Government can no longer afford to overlook another disaster in the making: the burden of rising health costs associated with a public health crisis, which is already exacting a heavy toll on India’s young and elderly, the two most vulnerable demographic groups. Studies have well-documented the adverse impact of air pollution on physical health, however, there are mental health costs to pay as well. Recent IFPRI research shows air pollution causes depressive symptoms, and can affect cognitive development in the long run.

Wider angle

For India, tackling air pollution is not only a domestic policy issue, but a global one as well. India is signatory to the Paris Accord on climate change, and has committed itself to starting mitigation activities immediately as well as developing a five-year plan for mitigation activities.

While the problem may not be political, but implementation of solutions lies in political will and consensus. In his first speech from the Red Fort on Independence Day in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid great emphasis, and rightly so, on cleanliness invoking Mahatma Gandhi, and announcing the “Clean India” campaign, calling it a cause close to his heart, with immense potential to create wealth through tourism.

To be sure, stubble burning is not the only cause of the high levels of smog faced by Northern Indian cities. Efforts are needed to check and mitigate high levels of air pollution triggered by the dusts from the construction sites and the high volume of road traffic.

Yet, the media coverage of Delhi’s air pollution internationally has brought it on the global radar, and the world is now looking at whether the Indian technocrats and policy makers work together to lift the smog from the capital city and the surrounding areas.

Undoubtedly, it will require a sustained collaboration between the central and State governments, but also the right mix of technical, economic and policy incentives to make it an attractive proposition for farmers to switch from stubble burning to ‘stubble management.’

The writer is a senior research fellow and head of capacity strengthening with the International Food Policy Research Institute

Published on December 21, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor