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Insights into Editorial: To curb stubble burning, make straw management machines affordable

burning

 

Introduction:

The Supreme Court, in November 2019, had directed the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to pay farmers a financial incentive to curb the practice, which accounts for nearly 4-30% of daily pollutant concentration in Delhi’s air in the early winter months.

The Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, or EPCA, is right in saying that an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal of grain—paid on top of the MSP during procurement by the Centre is “not viable”.

Though such an incentive will likely encourage more farmers to refrain from burning crop stubble, in the long run, the government can’t keep bearing this burden.

About Stubble Burning:

Stubble (parali) burning is the act of setting fire to crop residue to remove them from the field to sow the next crop.

In order to plant winter crop (Rabi crop), farmers in Haryana and Punjab have to move in a very short interval and if they are late, due to short winters these days, they might face considerable losses. Therefore, burning is the cheapest and fastest way to get rid of the stubble.

If parali is left in the field, pests like termites may attack the upcoming crop.

The precarious economic condition of farmers doesn’t allow them to use expensive mechanised methods to remove stubble.

Stubble Burning: Environmental and Health Risks:

  1. It is reported that 25%-30% contribution to the air pollution in the NCR is caused by burning of crops in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
  2. A study estimates that crop residue burning released 149.24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), over 9 million tonnes of carbon monoxide (CO),25 million tonnes of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 million tonnes of particulate matter and 0.07 million tonnes of black carbon.
  3. Cough or increase in cough was reported by 41.6 per cent people and 18.0 per cent reported wheezing.
  4. Another study by the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, estimated that people in rural Punjab spend Rs 7.6 crore every year on treatment for ailments caused by stubble burning.
  5. These directly contribute to environmental pollution, and are also responsible for the haze in Delhi and melting of Himalayan glaciers.
  6. The view of experts is that in-situ management of the crop residue is beneficial to the soil organisms and has nutrient value.
  7. This benefit is ignored either on account of ignorance or on account of curiosity to sow the next crop at the earliest. The paddy crop residue is not useful as fodder on account of silica content.
  8. As per the newspaper reports, 15,000 deaths took place in the year 2016 in the NCR on account of air pollution which required exploring measures for controlling the air pollution.

Reasons for Stubble Burning:

  1. India is the third largest wheat producer and there is pressure on farmers to grow more and more crops. Also, we are not tracking soil health. Soil biology is not discussed much.
  2. When it comes to wheat residue burning in Punjab, there is a problem with manual labour. Migrant workers have stopped visiting the state.
  3. Burning of wheat stubble has been going on for decades. Earlier, bulk of the harvesting was done manually and then the stubble used to be pulled out or ploughed back into the field.
  4. With the increase in mechanised harvesting, longer stalks are left back. These require a longer time to decompose once ploughed back into the land. So, farmers tend to burn the crop residue and then plough the land.
  5. The main problem behind crop burning is the rotational cropping system of rice and wheat.
  6. Farmers burn stubble as they have to quickly clear the fields for the next crop. Also, cost of fodder is too high or of converting the stubble into something else.
  7. There is a mismatch between manual labour required and its availability, as most migrant workers leave in October- November and come back in May-June.
  8. Though wheat straw is suitable for animals, it is problematic to store huge volumes of straw in one part of the land. It is also difficult to transport it back to villages, as additional cost is incurred.
  9. At the village level, there is also the problem of selling the husk due to the absence of a proper rate for fodder. Absence of market linkages is responsible for this.
  10. Besides India, wheat stubble burning is an issue in China as well. This is primarily happening in rice-wheat system areas where farmers have to go for transplanting of rice manually after wheat.
  11. Small stubbles, if not managed properly, create obstacles to labourers in transplanting. Sometimes, stubbles accumulate in one area of the field and damage newly planted rice seedlings.

Way Forward: Solutions:

  1. Both in-situ (in the field) and ex-situ (elsewhere) solutions need to be considered, apart from tackling the fundamental factors prompting the practice.
  2. To that end, the Supreme Court had directed action based on the Union agriculture and farmers welfare ministry’s submissions to it.
  3. Under a 100% centrally-funded scheme, machines that help farmers in in-situ management by tilling the stubble back into the soil were to be provided to individual farmers at 50% subsidy and to custom hiring centres (CHCs) at 80% subsidy.
  4. The CHCs were to be under the oversight of village panchayats, primary agricultural cooperative societies and farmer producer organisations.
  5. Ex-situ solutions could include the purchase of the residue from farmers for the generation of ethanol, biogas,
  6. While Haryana has set up CHCs and has provided nearly 16,000 straw-management machines.
  7. Similarly, Punjab, which has provided and reach 41% of its panchayats by October 2020.
  8. Unless the Centre and the state governments accelerate efforts to reach farmers, this year too will be lost.

Conclusion:

Another key factor will be ensuring affordability of service for those hiring the machines; Haryana has reserved 70% of the machines at panchayat-run CHCs for small and marginal farmers, while Punjab has prioritised service to them.

Both states, as the EPCA has pointed out, will need to formalise what farmers are to be charged;

While Haryana has said that panchayats are not charging any rental, Punjab has stated that small and marginal farmers are being charged only operational costs.

If, instead of incentives, the state governments were to find a way to provide the service for free, there would likely be greater uptake.

The long-term solution has to be crop diversification, away from paddy, but till the time the MSP-public procurement policies remain in place, it would be difficult to wean Punjab-Haryana farmers away from paddy meaningfully.