Chandigarh: Harbhajan Singh returned to Sadhanpur village in east Punjab's SAS Nagar district from two days off over Diwali, to find the paddy straw stubble from the three acres he farms, which he had bundled into neat stacks, turned to ash. "I was to transport and sell the bundles to the nearby industrial unit for use as fuel in its boiler, but the farm owner complained it was taking too long and set it on fire," Singh told IndiaSpend. "I had spent around Rs 7,000 on fuel, labour and other inputs. All of that has now gone to waste."

Harbhajan Singh operates a raker-baler machine every year during the paddy harvesting season to collect and bundle the paddy stubble. The baler operator sells the stubble bundles to industries and power plants, where it is used as fuel. Farmers don't earn much in this exchange and may incur a cost of about Rs 500 per acre if the power plant or industrial unit is located far away, he said.

Harbhajan's experience sums up the challenges around getting Punjab's farmers to decrease burning of paddy stubble: high cost of straw management, lack of financial incentives for farmers, a small window to sow the winter wheat crop after paddy harvesting, and little utility of the straw at the local village level.

Farmers burning paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana often bear the blame for severe air pollution in Delhi in the months of October and November. The contribution of farm fires to the capital's air pollution, however, varies widely depending on wind speed and direction, besides local weather conditions. This year, the contribution of farm fires to particulate matter 2.5 in Delhi's air varied from 2% to 48% between November 1 and 23, data from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR-India) of the Ministry of Earth Sciences' Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology showed.

Three years of an intense awareness campaign in the state, along with Rs 1,000 crore worth of subsidies on straw management machines, has not led to any big shift away from stubble burning, our investigation finds. "As many as 71,024 farm fires were recorded till November 22 compared to 76,501 during the same period last year," Krunesh Garg, member secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), told IndiaSpend. This amounts to a decrease of just 7%. "The total burnt area this season (till November 15) also reduced from 1.659 million hectares to 1.29 million hectares," or a 22% decrease. In 2019, 52,154 straw burning cases were recorded.

PPCB has imposed environmental fines totalling Rs 2.78 crore on erring farmers this year, Garg said. But no action is expected as the state assembly elections are due to be held early next year. Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi recently announced cancellation of all cases against farmers indulging in straw burning.

Agriculture experts blame the widespread use of the combine harvester after the Green Revolution in the 1980s, for the creation of paddy stubble during the harvest, and say the adoption of more machines to solve problems created by existing machines places a financial burden on farmers, and benefits only machine companies. They suggest that continuing cash incentives to compensate farmers for stubble management, which Punjab had implemented in 2019, are a better option. Incentives could also be given for industrial use of paddy straw, such as in bio-CNG plants, or for producing biomass power.

The ultimate solution is to reduce the area under the paddy crop in Punjab as it is not suitable to Punjab's agro ecological conditions, nor is it the state's staple crop, these experts told us. The central government should offer farmers price support and assured procurement for alternative crops such as maize, oilseeds and pulses.

Economic compulsions leading to stubble burning

Traditionally, paddy was cut manually and straw collected for use as fodder and bedding for animals, or to thatch roofs. With the introduction of the combine harvester machine in the 1980s, the paddy could be cut and threshed in a single operation. But the machine cuts the crop 8 inches above the ground, leaving the stem--more digestible as fodder--stuck in the soil. The upper part, being high in silica, is not good quality fodder, especially compared to wheat straw and commercial feed, per an October 2020 study by researchers at Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar. Simultaneously, paddy took over more area, rising from 1.18 million hectares in 1980 to 3.1 million hectares by 2019, leaving even more straw in its wake. Today, Punjab generates around 20 million tonnes of paddy straw annually.

Paddy is largely a monsoon (kharif) crop and wheat a winter (rabi) crop, planted after the kharif harvest. The window between harvesting of paddy and sowing of the wheat crop shrank with enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009. The law prohibits farmers from sowing paddy seeds in nurseries before May 10 and transplanting the seedlings before June 10, with the objective of reducing groundwater extraction for paddy cultivation and making use of the monsoon rains instead, which arrive by June end. However, this delays the harvesting of paddy at the end of the monsoon season, leaving little time for preparing the fields for wheat sowing, and farmers choose the faster option of burning the straw that remains after rice is harvested.

Farmers in Punjab usually sow wheat within 7-10 days of paddy harvesting, agriculture experts told us. Around 41% farmers attributed straw burning to the short window of time available between paddy and wheat cropping, while 48% said that burning is quicker and more economical, a 2015 survey of 625 people in 150 farming households in three villages in Patiala district by the Institute for Social and Economic Change at Delhi University and the National Council of Applied Economic Research had found. The study also found that air pollution caused by the straw burning leaves highly adverse impacts on the local population. Around 92% of the 625 persons surveyed were aware of harmful impacts of straw burning and 49% said their health problems aggravate during the straw burning season. Around 81% of those surveyed reported irritation in the eyes, 34% had congestion in the chest and around 11% experienced shortness of breath.

"We know and deal with problems that arise with straw burning. What can be done about it," asked farmer Jaspal Singh of Buttar village, Moga district. "Those in cities talk about environment protection but I have been volunteering with Baba Seechewal to clean the rivers in Punjab for so long. It's not our hobby to pollute the air. You should understand that there is no way out for us." This helplessness of farmers was evident to the Supreme Court when it recently rebuked the Union government for blaming farmers for Delhi's air pollution and not providing them enough machines to manage the surplus paddy straw.

The machine overkill

The Punjab government has distributed 76,622 machines to farmers and custom hiring centres on Rs 1,000 crore subsidy from the Union government since 2018. The equipment includes specialised seeders and mulchers, which help sow the wheat crop while mixing the paddy straw into the soil, as well as rakes and balers that gather and bundle the straw for easy transport to biomass power plants or industrial units, where it can be used to fire boilers or converted into fuel pellets, briquettes or items like cardboard. The cost of the equipment ranges from Rs 1.12 lakh to Rs 14 lakh.

Besides the one-time expense, the operating cost of these machines is high, farmers said. Super SMS, for instance, is an attachment for the combine harvester that further chops the straw and spreads it loosely on the ground for easy incorporation into the soil. In 2019, the state government made it mandatory that all combine harvesters have the attachment. However, farmers don't want to use it, citing cost. "Use of SMS increases the fuel consumption and reduces speed of harvesting, besides loss of grains which get caught in the attachment," said Avtar Singh of Sandharsi village, Patiala district.

Similar is the case with the operational cost of other machines, said farmers. "Diesel prices are still high despite the recent reduction in taxes while farmers had to pay extra to arrange for the DAP [Di-ammonium Phosphate] fertiliser which was in short supply this year. How can we farmers be then expected to spend Rs 3,500-5,000 per acre for straw management through machines," asked Gurtej Singh of Mehatpur village, Jalandhar district. Many of these machines also require tractors with power greater than 65 horsepower. "Punjab has around 475,000 tractors and half of them would be below 65 horsepower. So, a farmer has to overhaul the whole apparatus to be able to use these machines," said Ranjit Singh Ghuman, professor of eminence (economics) at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

"Diesel prices are still high despite the recent reduction in taxes while farmers had to pay extra to arrange for the DAP fertiliser which was in short supply this year. How can we farmers be then expected to spend Rs 3,500-5,000 per acre for straw management through machines," asks Gurtej Singh of Mehatpur village, Jalandhar district.

Farming in Punjab is already highly mechanised, which has helped deal with labour shortage but also led to high debts, say experts. Punjab, with a 4% share of the total cropped area in the country, has 11% of all tractors, with a tractor available for every 9 hectares of cultivable land.

"Punjab is saturated with farm machines resulting in high debts and bigger ecological disasters. Promotion of more expensive machinery, which remain in use only for one month of straw management, will further compound the problem," said Gurpreet Singh Dabrikhana based in Faridkot district, who has been training farmers about natural farming in Punjab, Haryana and neighbouring states.

Ghuman feels the problem that arose with adoption of a machine (combine harvester) can't be solved with more machines. "This will only benefit the market players. Instead, a direct cash incentive of Rs 1,500-2,000 per acre is required for farmers to compensate them for straw management," he said.

In 2019, the then chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh had reportedly asked the Union government to give Rs 100 per quintal incentive to paddy growers to prevent stubble burning. On getting no positive response, the state government announced Rs 2,500 per acre for small and marginal farmers in 2020 and Rs 19 crore was distributed among 29,000 farmers.

Extracting energy from paddy stubble

Incentives can also come from industries if ex-situ methods like setting up bio-CNG plants are promoted, said experts. "The plants can convert paddy straw into green fuel and manure while also offering money to farmers, or just picking up the straw for free, provided it's done quickly after paddy harvesting," said Ghuman.

A bio-CNG plant to produce biogas and manure from paddy straw has reportedly already been set up in Sangrur district and will start operations early next year, consuming 10,000 tonnes of paddy straw annually.

Punjab also has 11 biomass power plants, which use 880,000 MT of paddy straw to produce electricity. But these plants need a large area to store paddy straw for the whole year. Further, officials say the high cost of producing power from biomass is making them unattractive to power distribution companies, which can get cheaper power from other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

"Biomass power plants require high investment besides having high operational costs due to procurement, transport and storage of raw material, compared to other renewable energy sources like solar and wind which are a one-time investment," R.K. Gupta, joint director (Biomass), Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA), told IndiaSpend. "This is why biomass power plants are losing out, especially after the tariff for solar has gone down. For biomass players, the cost is around Rs 8 per unit. We have asked the Union government to provide viability gap funding of Rs 5 per unit to biomass power players but there is no response yet." PEDA in its request to the central government pointed out that the power distribution companies want to purchase power from biomass projects based on paddy straw at a maximum of Rs 5 per unit.

Compressing paddy straw into fuel pellets and briquettes which can be used in industrial boilers is also gaining attention, but these remain small-scale or in the trial stage.

New and old solutions

The Indian Agriculture Research Institute raised several hopes when it announced the release of a bio decomposer, a cocktail of microorganisms that can decompose the paddy straw on the field itself. It is, however, neither readily available nor yet proven to meet the time criteria.

"We are currently evaluating the IARI's bio decomposer in collaboration with the state's agriculture department. One of the gaps is that it takes around 20-25 days to decompose paddy straw while the farmers in Punjab usually sow wheat within 7-10 days of paddy harvesting," said G.S. Kocher, head of the department of microbiology, Punjab Agricultural University. "There are many other decomposers developed by private players that are available in the market, which also claim to do the same job, but unless they meet the farmer's need for quick decomposition of paddy straw, these solutions will not work."

Nomadic pastoralists are still collecting and using the paddy straw as fodder for their animals, but these are limited to areas adjoining the hills, in districts along the Himachal Pradesh border. In Pathankot district, which saw no incident of straw burning, Gujjar pastoralists pay the farmers around Rs 2,500 per acre to collect the straw. "They don't focus on high milk production but low budget animal rearing, which is only possible when cheap fodder is used," Gurtej Singh, who collects straw for Gujjars through his baler machine in Jalandhar district, told IndiaSpend.

Most of these alternatives remain successful but only in isolated conditions, which is why localised solutions are required. "Different regions of Punjab have unique behaviour patterns when it comes to straw burning, dates of sowing and soil types and hence need region-specific plans," Inderjeet Singh, former chief agriculture officer of Pathankot district, told IndiaSpend. "Southern parts, especially Sangrur district, see the highest cases and hence can be paid more attention."

Straw burning may not abate in the near future unless the paddy-wheat cycle is disrupted. "Paddy is neither suitable to Punjab's agro ecological conditions, nor is it our staple crop. We took to it during the Green Revolution because India wanted us to produce more rice to feed other states. But the crop has not only polluted our air, it also depleted the groundwater," said Ghuman. "The only long lasting and ultimate solution to the paddy problem is that the Centre offers price support and assured procurement for alternative crops like maize, oilseeds and pulses."

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