It is 11:30 am. A gypsy, with two loudspeakers mounted on it, takes a U-turn (on NH 7 at Chano) and enters Kalajhar village in Sangrur district of Punjab. As it enters, it starts announcing to the farmers in the village to gather at the outskirts and set the crop residue on fire. Such announcement is a sharp contrast to the law that forbids crop residue burning.
Vehicle stops under a Neem tree. Jagtar Singh, a leader of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), steps out of the vehicle along with five other farmers. He picks up a microphone and starts addressing a small gathering.
“The decision of banning crop residue burning is unjustifiable and makes us poorer,” says Singh. He further urges farmers to unite against this anti-farmer move of the state and Union governments that has been forcing farmers to buy costly new machines. After his 10-minute-long speech, more than two dozens of farmers, moved towards a field and set off fire in paddy straw.
“It is our non-violent protest against this anti-farmer government. We all farmers are ready to get arrested,” Singh tells Down To Earth. In few seconds, the field gets engulfed in fire. Smoke starts billowing, turning the sky black.
It is a common scene in Punjab villages where farmers harvest paddy. They are unable to decompose paddy straw during the short period of time between harvesting Kharif crops and start growing wheat crops from November.
Farmers confront the state government
On Wednesday, Jagtar Singh was booked by the police for inciting farmers in Fatehpur Pind village to burn crop residue. He was booked along with another villager, Kesar Singh Basi. “I was told over the phone that a case was registered against me but the police has not come to arrest me,” says Jagtar Singh.
There have been several news reports in the local media on cases being registered against farmers from different parts of the state.
“Around 100 farmers were penalised in Amritsar district last week,” says Manu Mudgal, a farmer activist based in Chandigarh. The state government’s efforts to put a blanket ban on burning of crop residue has brought farmers in confrontation with the administration.
Schemes are available, but not the machines
The confrontation continues despite the Centre sanctioning Rs 269-crore subsidy to Punjab farmers so that they can buy machines at 50 per cent subsidised rates.
This year, the Centre also announced agricultural mechanisation scheme for in-situ management of crop residue in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Delhi with total fund of Rs 1,152 crore for 2018-19 and 2019-20. This year, Punjab will get its share of Rs 269 crore to buy 24,972 different machines –rotavator, Happy seeder, chopper, super straw management system—that help in chopping straw in small pieces and spreading them inside the soil itself.
Under this scheme, Farm Machinery Banks have to be established. Eighty 80 per cent of the cost of machines will be provided to the cooperative societies of farmers, farmer producer organisations, self help groups, and other farmer groups. An individual farmer would get financial assistance of 50 per cent for the equipment. The scheme was rolled out in April this year, but machines have not reached the cooperative societies.
Down To Earth visited Kalajhar Cooperative society, which serves nine villages and has only one rotavator machine. In Nabha block of Patiala district, which has 55 farmer cooperative societies, not a single machine is available.
Problems do not stop at machines
On October 10, more than 350 farmers protested against the government's effort to force farmers into buying costly machines to stop burning crop residue. “We demand a proper way of decomposition of straw as machines are not available in any societies,” says Ghuman Singh, state secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), a farmer organisation in the state. “Even if machines are available, they cannot solve the problem in short time as the time for sowing of wheat and potatoes is approaching,” he adds.
B S Rajewal, state president of BKU, gave a call to 'arrest' those officials who visit villages to inspect crop burning. “We are left with no opportunity but to confront this anti-farmer government,” says Rajewal. Such a call could lead to another showdown between farmers and the state government in the coming days as paddy harvesting picks up.
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