North India can tackle smog using eco-friendly farm practices from the South, say experts

Mulching, nitrogen-fixing have waned in the Indo-Gangetic Plain; but they are still being used in the Cauvery basin, according to scientists  

By M Raghuram
Published: Sunday 26 November 2023
A farmer sets paddy stubble on fire in Palasaur village of Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) of north India can mitigate its annual smog problem if it adopts eco-friendly farming practices being practised in south India’s Cauvery basin such as mulching and nitrogen-fixing, agricultural scientists and farm activists have said.

One of the major causes of smog formation over the IGP is burning of paddy stubble. The IGP witnesses paddy stubble burning to clear fields for the sowing of wheat, which is the major Rabi (winter) crop.

Mechanised harvesters, while efficient, leave paddy stubble at a height of 1.5-2 feet, necessitating its removal for the subsequent wheat crop.

The expeditious but most harmful method employed for stubble removal is burning. The tight window between rice harvesting and wheat planting compels farmers to resort to burning stubble urgently.

This results in the loss of crucial nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium oxide, sulphur, and micronutrients.

“But there are methods to mitigate this situation and turn the sheer volume of stubble and bio material into natural manure for the vast plains of north India. All it needs is mechanical support which should be made mandatory through available environmental laws,” said KT Gangadhar, chief of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha and an agricultural scientist.

He added that the agricultural history of north India showed that certain eco-friendly practices had waned in the region.

On the other hand, the south, particularly the Cauvery basin, boasts practices like mulching which is certainly a solution for the mitigating the smog problem of the north.

A win-win

“In discussions with Delhi University and Union government agricultural officers, I have advocated for urgent adoption of mulching and nitrogen-fixing. I have suggested that even tough wheat stubble, when processed with machinery on the field, can be mulched, enriching the soil with nutrients for the next crop,” said Gangadhar.

According to reports from the Agricultural Sciences University in Bidar, one tonne of paddy straw contains significant amounts of essential nutrients and micro-nutrients lost during burning.

DV Veeresh, the general secretary of the Shivamogga unit of Hasiru Sene, highlights the potential benefits of widespread mulching post-harvest.

“It is no big deal to mulch the stubble. We have good farm machinery that can pulverise the wheat, paddy and jowar (sorghum) stubbles. There are attachments that can shred the stubble to powder and mix it with earth and enrich it. Our farmers do it after every harvest and this has brought down our cost on fertilisers and the quality of soil remains constant in nutrient content,” Veeresh said. 

Others pointed to the paradox of how south India, where paddy is the chief crop, has stayed away from burning its stubble.

They pointed to the fact that paddy, wheat and jowar fields in the IGP are wide open areas that extend to hundreds of miles and are characteristically large holdings.

But in South India, terrace farms, highland farms, river bank farms, valley farms and many other categories of farmlands also are small to medium holdings.

This gives the farming community the advantage of resorting to good environmental practices in farming.

“There is not even a single incident of stubble burning in the whole of south India so far in the last 50 years. Imagine if farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala where paddy is the main crop resort to stubble burning. What would be the condition of cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and others and its effect on the environment? These states combinedly have more land under Kharif and Rabi crops than the IGP,” said Manjunath Gowda, a farm and environmental activist from the South Cauvery Farmers Association.                              

Gangadhar said considering the persistent nature of stubble burning, an enduring solution may involve incentivising farmers to shift away from rice and wheat cultivation entirely.

“Encouraging the production of alternative crops with reduced stubble output could mitigate the recurring problem. The multifaceted issue of stubble burning requires a holistic and scientific approach, considering agricultural practices, technological innovations, and long-term shifts in crop cultivation patterns to address the root causes and promote sustainable alternatives,” he added. 

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.