Bracing for stubble trouble: How Punjab plans to stop the fire

The shorter cropping window of 20 days between paddy and wheat does not allow the paddy straw to decompose in the soil through the natural process, leading the farmer to burn and prepare the field for the next crop.

Updated: Sep 12, 2018 15:14:21

By Gurpreet Singh Nibber

A farmer setting his field on fire after harvesting the paddy crop at Kauli village in Patiala district. (HT File )

In a month, the lush paddy fields of Punjab will be ready for harvest. With a brief window to clear the field for sowing wheat before winter sets in, farmers tend to burn the crop residue, causing smog to engulf the region. This happened till the last paddy season despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on stubble burning three years ago. But this year could be a different story with the central and state governments educating and providing farmers subsidised machinery to tackle the stubble in environment-friendly ways.

Paddy has been cultivated in 74 lakh acres of Punjab this year and 22 million metric tonnes of rice residue is expected to be generated. Punjab alone contributes 65% of the total residue produced by the northwestern states.

Biomass-based power generating units in Punjab can consume only five million tonnes of the stubble.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Centre sanctioned Rs 665 crore from 2018-20 to generate awareness and boost the use of subsidised machinery for processing the crop residue instead of burning it in Punjab. A sum of Rs 269 crore is being spent this year, while Rs 396 crore will be spent in 2019.

Why the worry

The shorter cropping window of 20 days between paddy and wheat does not allow the paddy straw to decompose in the soil through the natural process, leading the farmer to burn and prepare the field for the next crop. Farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal says, “Paddy transplanting was delayed and started on June 20. This means the maturing of the crop will be delayed by a fortnight, leaving a shorter window for wheat sowing. Farmers will be desperate to get rid of their stubble,” he says.

Secondly, migrant labour availability challenges from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have led to large-scale mechanization or increased use of combine harvesters. The combines operate 50-60 cm above the ground and leave behind standing stubble. This was not the case with manual labour that uprooted the entire stalk. Low availability of options such as Happy Seeder and Super SMS have the farmers worried.

“Managing the stubble is costly and time consuming. Machines on subsidy also come at a price. I can’t buy any this year. Let’s see what the other farmers do,” says Sukhjit Singh, a farmer from Karma village in Ferozepur district.

Punjab faces the uphill task of motivating farmers to buy hi-tech machines. “I’m confused about which implement I should buy. Should it be a mulcher, Happy Seeder, straw shredder or rotavator? When a super straw management system (SMS) has been made mandatory with harvest machines, what’s the point of the other machines?” says Sukhwinder Singh, a farmer from Bhattian village near Machhiwara.

At present, the government’s challenge is to make the machines available by September-end.

The demand of farmers and the Punjab government for Rs 200 per quintal bonus for paddy to manage stubble fizzled out after the Centre increased the paddy minimum support price (MSP) by Rs 170-Rs 200 per quintal, taking it to Rs 1,720-Rs 1,750. “Now that the bonus demand has fizzled out, let’s see how farmers manage stubble this season,” says Jagmohan Singh of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakhounda).

Will act tough

Data provided by Punjab to the Union environment secretary shows a drop of 37,602 cases of stubble burning post paddy harvest between 2016 and 2017. There were 80,879 cases in 2016 and 43,817 in 2017.

“We are confident that there will be a considerable fall in the number of burning cases this year,” says Punjab director, agriculture, JS Bains.

The Punjab Pollution Control Board has also urged the political dispensation not to interfere in penal action against farmers who resort to burning paddy. Principal secretary, environment, Roshan Sunkaria urged state environment minister OP Soni to ensure that defaulters are not let off this time.

In previous harvest seasons, the government asked the PPCB to go easy on farmers. “In 2017, we were tough with defaulting farmers till October 18 but after directions from the state government, action was stopped,” says an officer of the environment department, requesting anonymity.

“Now we have the signal to act tough. Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh is clear on this,” the officer says.

Health hazard

Pollution levels double in October and November due to stubble burning. Harvard researchers, who scrutinised National Aeronautics Space Association (NASA) data and satellite maps from 2012-16, found that the national capital region turns into a smoke chamber due to rampant stubble burning.

People in Delhi (4.75 crore), Punjab (2.75 crore) and Haryana (2.5 crore) are affected by the ill-effects of smog which contains harmful suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and carbon monooxide.

“On certain days during the peak season, air pollution in Delhi is 20 times higher than the threshold for safe air as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO),” the study says.

Normally, Delhi’s air has about 150 micrograms per cubic metre of suspended particulate matter, which doubles in October and November, taking the pollution level 12 times higher than the permissible limit. The WHO threshold for safe air is 25 micrograms per cubic metre but the Central Pollution Control Board limits exposure to 60 micrograms per cubic metre.

On the effects of stubble burning, Dr T Behera of the pulmonary medicine department at Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, says, “The condition of those suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis worsens with new symptoms showing up.”

First Published: Sep 12, 2018 11:11:22


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