Farmers in Punjab are burning stubble as an act of rebellion

They are angry that even as they suffer from farm distress and do not get any proper returns on their labour and produce, the onus of stubble burning is put on them

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Friday 08 November 2019
Stubble fires in Punjab. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Stubble fires in Punjab. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Stubble fires in Punjab. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Amid the headlines about the Supreme Court asking northern states (November 6, 2019) to support farmers in managing stubble one aspect has gone unnoticed: Many in Punjab are setting fire to their fields post-harvest in anger. They are angry that onus of disposing the crop residue without burning is on them even at a time of farm distress.

Machines to dispose paddy stubble are unaffordable; even if one somehow gets hold of a machine, there's no proper facility to dump the residue, the farmers allege. This at a time when they don't get proper compensation for their labour and produce.

While wheat stubble can be converted into chaff and sold as animal fodder at a good price, there's no such utilisation in case of paddy stubble, they claim.

Combined harvesters leave a feet or two of stubble on the field. With a short window (about three weeks) between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat, farmers take the shortcut of burning the stubble and then irrigating the fields for sowing wheat.

“The farmer is clear that his job is to produce the crop. Post-production management is the government's job as he neither has the economic back-up nor the capacity to deal with the residue,” Gobinder Singh of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) (Ugrahan) from Sangrur said.

“We have been demanding that the government either pay Rs 200 per quintal of stubble or Rs 6,000 per killa (4.16 bigha) to the farmer to deal with the residue or take the onus on itself,” he added.

“The Supreme Court has come out with a positive intervention asking the state government to pay the farmers Rs 100 per quintal and provide them with the machinery to dispose the stubble. The problem lies in the approach of the government that threatens the farmers with police complaints, withdrawal of subsidies and even wields the stick against the farmers,” Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of BKU (Rajewal), said.

This high-handedness angers farmers. They have demonstrated and even held junior officials (like patwaris) hostage.

One such incident shared by a farmer leader with this reporter pertains to the Karala village in Nabha where there was a major showdown between the officials and farmers with the latter gheraoing not only a patwari who had come to take stock of the stubble that was burnt but also the police officials.

It was only after the intervention of the police brass and the promise of there being no coercive action that the matter was resolved.

Observers on the ground say that such instances have become a norm in several villages, particularly in the Malwa region of Punjab, where farmers are expressing their resentment against state coercion.

The government, on its part, said that action was initiated against 2,923 farmers in 20,729 cases of stubble burning reported till November 1 in the state. The state expects about 10-20 per cent decline in the number of such cases this year against 2018 as a result of the intensified drive of the Captain Amarinder Singh-led government.

A government spokesperson said on November 3 that against a total of around 49,000 cases of stubble burning last year, this year the state government had so far received reports of 20,729 cases, with more than 70 per cent of the paddy already harvested.

“The problem of stubble disposal can be resolved by using machines like ‘Super Seeder’ that costs a little above Rs 2 lakh. But this again points at the lopsided approach of the government that needs to give a reasonable subsidy on such equipment. We have been using it for almost a decade and have not resorted to any burning of the stubble,” said Jaspal Singh Dhillon of Kararwala village in Rampura Phul area of Bathinda.

He claimed that in many villages like Haripur in Amloh and Kalamajri in Nabha, none of the farmers have been burning stubble.

RS Ghuman from the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh said the latest apex court directions on stubble burning will only partially address the problem as they are only for small and marginal farmers.

“The Supreme Court directions are not a win-win solution for everyone. The government needs to look towards a long-term solution that also addresses issues like an increase in income, generates employment and other concerns,” he said.

“One of the solutions can be setting up of bio-compressed natural gas (CNG) plants that would yield bio manure as a by-product. This, in turn, would also yield GST returns besides leading to a decline in the use of chemical fertiliser and dependence on machinery. There is a need to go in for hand holding of entrepreneurs manufacturing Bio CNG instead of machine producers,” he added while stating that farmers cannot be expected to purchase high cost machinery to deal with stubble management. 

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