‘What other option do we have?’: Why stubble fires would not die

The happy seeder and super seeder machines are too few in number, a lot of them are defunct: Why farmers set their crops on fire every year 

By Shagun
Published: Tuesday 10 November 2020

Come November, and the farms are on fire. It is a story that repeats year after year. But 2020 has been worse: The number of farm fires due to burning of paddy straw in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh has overtaken the counts of the last two years. And Delhi-NCR is choking on toxic air.

This is despite multiple moves, including a new commission to check pollution sources as well as stubble burning, formed by the Union government recently.

The Punjab government, too, had said it would provide 23,000 on-site crop residue management machines to farmers with a subsidy of 50 per cent to individual farmers and 80 per cent for cooperative societies and farmer groups. While machines are also available for rent, the government said it would not charge small and marginal farmers for the same.

The state governments have been encourging, and yet, the fires have not died down. Why?

Pollution woes

According to data synergised by SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, the total number of farm fires till November 7, 2020 is approximately 25 per cent more than the fires observed each in 2019 and 2018. 

On November 5, the Air Quality Index in Delhi recorded the ‘severe’; since then the city has experienced six consecutive days of poisonous pollution levels.

At the same time, the number of farm fires, especially in Punjab, has also been on a rise. The number of recorded farm fires from September 21-November 9, 2020 in Punjab alone was 62,844. This figure is 26.6 per cent more than last year and 54 per cent more than 2018 during the same period.

Farmers in these states burn the residue after harvesting paddy to clear the fields of the summer harvest and make way for the sowing of wheat. Burning the paddy straw is the easiest way to get rid of it, but the smoke from these fires travels to Delhi, adding to the already high pollution levels.

The share of this smoke in Delhi’s concentration of toxic particulate matter 2.5 has remained between 21 and 42 per cent in the last few days. 

The number of cases was comparatively less around two weeks ago, but with almost all of paddy harvested now and the beginning of wheat sowing, the cases have been on the rise.

What do farmers say?

The farmers have several stories to tell, but they mostly circle around the inefficacy of the solutions provided by the authorities. Availability and functionality of the machines offered remain a huge problem, they said. Even after years of experimenting with different solutions, problems remain.

Parvinder Singh, a medium farmer from Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district, had applied for subsidy for purchasing a super-seeder machine in 2019. He hasn’t received it till now.

“Who likes to set fire to the straw wilfully? But what other option do I have?” he said.

A super-seeder ploughs paddy stubble in soil and sows wheat seed simultaneously. The machine costs around Rs 200,000; the subsidy is 50 per cent of the total cost for an individual farmer.

But there is another rider.

“The subsidy is given through a draw. I want to buy it but I have been waiting for two years now,” he said. When asked about renting the machine, Singh said when he went to enquire about it, the nearest custom hiring centre (CHC) didn’t have any machinery for rent.

Several other farmers DTE spoke to faced similar problem.

A farmer from Tarn Taran district, who has been burning stubble for some years now and did not wish to be identified, said only two machines were available for rent for the 300 farmers in his village.

Another farmer, Baljinder Singh from Firozpur district’s Ambarhar village, said only five-six machines were available for around 11 panchayats in the district. 

“Farmers can’t wait for so long. It is a critical time period between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat. Where will a farmer keep running for the machine,” he said.

Baljinder and some other farmers together bought a happy seeder machine on 80 per cent subsidy, but it was defunct. In 2019, he bought one for himself again.

Farmers get 10-15 days between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat, which is also the time they have to get rid of the paddy straw. A law (Punjab Preservation of Sub Soil Water Act, 2009) aggravated the problem for it delayed the paddy harvest from September to late October, thereby giving farmers less time to manage the stubble.

Burning of paddy stubble in late-October and early-November also coincides with unfavourable meteorological conditions in Delhi-NCR such as calm winds and heavy air. Bursting fire crackers on Diwali paves way for the cocktail of toxic gases that city chokes on. 

Gurbinder Singh Bajwa, a progressive farmer from Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, said many times the machines rented by farmers would either be defunct or unsuitable for use.

“Last time, around 80-85 happy seeders failed in nearby panchayats. Those used to spread more wheat seeds than required at one particular area. Farmers this time are not opting for these machines as they have lost confidence.”

The issue of the straw not being spread evenly by happy seeders was reported by many farmers and has been even recognised by the government. This issue, the government, says is now being addressed by super seeders. But while the government has made the super seeders rent free for small and marginal farmers, these farmers would still need a big tractor.

“Tractors with over 60 horse power are needed to run these machines and small and marginal farmers don’t have that. So they have to spend money to rent even tractors, the expense for which comes to be around Rs 1,200 per acre. This is an expensive exercise,” said Bajwa.

These problems aren’t new; a workable solution hasn’t been found yet. Another attempt to promote paddy stubble as a key biomass resource used as a fuel or raw material by power plants hasn’t generated desired results, as farmers have not been able to monetise it. Instead, contractors from different plants charge farmers for collecting stubble.

Gurdarshan Singh, a farmer from Khera village in Fatehgarh Sahib district, said the companies take around Rs 1,500 per acre for collecting the bales.

“I didn’t want to burn the straw, so I thought of going with this option this time. I have compressed some of the straw from my 18 acre land into bales. I am now waiting for the contractor to collect these. But this means I will have to spend over Rs 20,000. I don’t know for how long I can keep doing this,” he said.

He added he burned rest of the straw.

Gurdarshan had filled the form seeking subsidy for a super seeder in 2019, and a rotavator three years ago. But he hasn’t received either of them till now.

Sukhvinder Pappi, who works with Kheti Virasat Mission that promotes organic farming, said: “We met with the state government officials many times and told them that the subsidy was not reaching the farmers. Crores of rupees have been spent for straw management, but bureaucrats and companies selling these machines are the ones benefitting.

Pappi was speaking at a webinar on stubble burning hosted by Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

Rishi Raj, a farmer from Haryana, said during the webinar the government should focus on workable solutions such as providing for the cost incurred by farmers in mulching instead of machines like happy seeders and super seeders.

GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive direcor, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said a shift from rice-wheat cropping pattern by incentivising shift to pulses and oilseeds, along with shifting to short-duration varieties of rice or direct seeding of rice, have to be adopted in long term to stop stubble burning.

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