While the air quality in Delhi and adjoining areas continues to deteriorate because of unchecked paddy straw burning in Punjab and Haryana, two initiatives in Punjab are trying to solve the problem
Think Punjab and most of us are likely to imagine clear blue sky and lush green fields. Some might say the imagination is exaggerated, thanks to Bollywood, but it is safe to assume that no one will associate the state with thick black smog and burnt down barren fields. But that is how the state looks every winter.
The reason for the poor air quality is the burning of paddy stubble by farmers in the state. This practice comes in handy for farmers as they prepare their fields for sowing rabi (winter) crops. However, the thick smoke which emanates as a result of setting fields on fire poses serious health hazards for people. The burning of fields also affects the quality of soil, robbing it of vital nutrients. The smoke contains toxic chemicals that can cause respiratory and other ailments.
The state produces 17-18 million tonnes of paddy straw every year. The practice of burning paddy straw continues unchecked despite the Punjab government imposing a ban on burning them on October 22, 2013. The situation is so bad this year that the Punjab and Haryana High Court on November 27 issued notices to the chief secretaries of Punjab and Haryana, seeking their response on why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against them for their failure to implement the high court order on curbing burning of paddy straw. The replies have to be filed on January 21, 2016.
The impact this year can be clearly seen in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images, which show that the smoke emanating as a result of paddy burning is seen moving in the southeast direction towards Delhi, leaving behind a smog cover over the region.
In 2013, the state government had said it will provide farm machines at subsided rates to remove the straws. And while the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) says it has already spent Rs 5.20 crore on subsidies between 2014 and 2015 to popularise the use of machines such as rotavator, chopper and baler, farmers say they are clueless about the scheme.
“Even we don’t like burning the fields, but unfortunately, it is the quickest and cheapest way of getting rid of the straw,” says Joginder Singh, a farmer from Punjab’s Fazilka district. Lakhinder Singh, another farmer from Fazilka, says, “Small farmers do not have the farm equipment to remove the paddy straw. They have to rent it from large farmers or cooperatives who charge Rs 600 per hour for the equipment.” He adds that their availability is also problematic. “Equipment such as rotavators that cuts, pulverizes, mixes and levels the soil are not even available in our district,” says Lakhinder Singh.
Raju Narang, manager with Sampurn Agri Ventures, a company that is innovating to stop farmers from burning paddy, says he has been seeing fields being burnt since he was a little kid. “Most farmers in the area are not owners of the land they till. For them, tilling paddy straw back to the soil is a tedious process that involves running the machines through the farms around five times, which involves both money and time. That is the reason they prefer burning the fields since it is an easier solution to their woes.” Additionally, straws have no commercial value and take a long time to decompose in the soil.
Turning waste into wealth
While the situation continues to be problematic, biomass manufacturer Dee Development Engineers Limited (DDEL) seems to have found a localised solution. The company is using paddy straw to fuel its 8 MW biomass plant in Fazilka. The company has farm machines that it employs on the fields of farmers for free and then collects the straw. Seeing the success, DDEL is now using paddy straw in its plant of 7.5 MW capacity in Muktsar district of Punjab.
Ratan Goel, manager of the DDEL plant in Fazilka, says while they have been using paddy straw as a fuel for the past four years, there is a problem. “The calorific value of rice straw is low. As a result, it can generate a maximum temperature of 2,700oC to 3,000oC. But to produce electricity, the temperature needs to be at least 3,200oC.” So the straws have to be supplemented with the husk of mustard and cotton, and other kinds of residues to generate power. Goel says this mixing of different fuel sources is possible only in places that grow different crops. “In areas like Jalandhar and Ludhiana, where the only source available for a biomass plant is paddy straw, the power plant might not be able to operate,” he adds.
Another initiative can be seen in the south-west part of Punjab that faces acute waterlogging issues after rains. According to a report by the erstwhile Planning Commission, the reasons for waterlogging in the area are “seepage from unlined earthen canals system, inadequate provision of surface and subsurface drainage, poor water management practices, insufficient water supplies and use of poor quality groundwater for irrigation”. As a result, the region has over 141,640 hectares of farmland that face severe waterlogging every year. In one village, Sikhwala, where not a single crop has been sown in the past 15 years, an agriculture company has found a way to deal not only with waterlogging, but also the paddy straw in the region.
Muktsar district-based Sampurn Agri Ventures Private Ltd has converted the wet wasteland into Veniamin shrimp farms. The shrimps consume calcium from the water and make it soft. The water quality also gets enhanced with the nitrogen-rich excreta of the shrimp. This water is then transported to the Sampurn Agri Ventures’ 1 MW biogas plant that was set up in April 2015 and used for composting the paddy straw that is sourced from farmlands in nearby villages.
The biogas generated through composting is used to produce electricity that is fed into the grid. The compost generated in the process is also an excellent bio-fertiliser that improves productivity and yield.
“Paddy straw compost is rich in soluble silica which is important for plant growth. It also has excellent water retention capacity hence leads to 40 per cent water saving in agriculture,” says Sanjeev Nagpal, managing director of Sampurn Agri Ventures. The company pays farmers Rs 110 per quintal of paddy straw and sells the bio-fertiliser at Rs 10 per kg. “This project is a combination of different activities which works together to develop end-to-end solution for the overall development,” he says.
These initiatives show that a sustainable solution to the paddy burning problem is possible. Along with promoting farm machines, Punjab and Haryana governments should try to replicate similar initiatives across the states.
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