Delhi: Crores allocated, but winter smog from stubble burning likely this year too

Health experts fear that the effects of COVID-19, primarily respiratory problems, could be worsened by heightened air pollution due to smoke from the annual stubble burning.

Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are peeved at being blamed for Delhi’s smog. “We have been burning crop residue for the past 50 years now,” said a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union from Haryana, who does not want to be named. “If anybody is affected it should be the surrounding villages. We don’t face any such problem. So why is this problem in Delhi seen just during these past few years?”

Every winter, not just Delhi but the entire northern region is frequently enveloped in a thick blanket of smog, caused by air pollution from vehicular and industrial emissions mixing with fog. The burning of post-harvest paddy stubble in the agricultural fields of Haryana and Punjab is often cited as a major cause of this unhealthy smog.

This year, health experts fear that the effects of COVID-19, which primarily causes respiratory problems, would be worsened by heightened air pollution due to smog and smoke from the annual stubble burning.

According to a report by The Energy Resource Institute (TERI), last year, from October to December, air pollution in New Delhi and other cities in north India was up to 20 times higher than the safe threshold levels defined by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It is estimated that Punjab produces 20 million tonnes of rice stubble, 80 per cent of which is burnt. According to the TERI report, due to labour shortage during COVID-19, paddy transplantation date was advanced to June 10th this year. However, this is unlikely to contain stubble burning.

Why burn

Farmers resort to burning of crop residue due to the short window available to sow the next wheat crop. Traditionally, older farmers in Punjab and Haryana recall, very little paddy was sown as wheat, not rice, is the staple diet in the region. However, with the advent of Green Revolution, a rice-wheat crop rotation has become the norm, under which specialized short-duration varieties were introduced.

Rice is grown between June and October, followed by wheat from November to April. Any delay in sowing of wheat adversely affects crop yield. As farmers get barely 20-25 days between the two crops, the easiest way to clear the field is burning the crop residue instead of the more time-consuming mechanical route. Which is also quite expensive, say farmers.

In 2013, under the Air Act, 1981, Punjab government banned the burning of crop residue in the fields. Later, in 2015, the National Green Tribunal prohibited the burning of paddy straw while directing the government to help farmers manage the paddy straw using specialised equipment like Happy Seeder that chops paddy straw, sows wheat seeds and layers the straw as a mulch. Other machines like Rotavator, that bundle the straw into bales to be transported, were also to be procured and used.

Punjab Agriculture department officials said about 20,000 pieces of farm equipment were supplied to Punjab farmers in 2019 under a centrally sponsored scheme to promote mechanisation. In the previous year, 28,000 machines were given out. Despite that, according to official data, Punjab witnessed over 22,000 incidents of stubble burning till November 2019.

Machines of contention

As a solution for the current year, the Punjab and Haryana governments submitted an Action Plan to a Supreme Court mandated panel to check stubble burning. The plan promises farmers easier accessibility to machinery that manages crop residue.

But with just a few weeks to go before the fields are cleared post-harvest for the kharif, or winter, wheat sowing, there appears to be little momentum to implement this Action Plan. Especially as no systems are yet in place to enable farmers to hire machines at affordable rates.

As things stand, it seems it will be business as usual, particularly with the state governments forced to use available personnel and resources in battling the pandemic.

“The paddy crop is still standing which we will begin harvesting next month,” says Ekta Sukhdev Singh, a farmer in Kukarikalan village of Punjab. “We have to begin sowing wheat in December but as of now, no arrangements have been made for any stubble clearing machines”.

Under the Action Plan, the two state governments are to set up more Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs) to rent out machinery to farmers who cannot afford to buy the high-end machinery, besides supplying more balers—a machine used to compress stubble into compact bales.

Punjab claims it has set up 7,378 CHCs over the past two years and has announced another 5,200 CHCs will be set up this year to meet the target of having one CHC in each village. Haryana has set up 2,879 CHCs and 2,000 more will be established by October, the government has said.

CHCs are machine banks that rent out expensive machines to farmers, who cannot afford to buy them. The CHCs generally comprise cooperative societies, private entrepreneurs, informal farmers’ groups or FPOs (Farmer Producer Organisations). The machines, which are rented out to farmers, are bought at a subsidized cost.

The machines don’t come cheap. A Super Seeder costs Rs 2.1 lakh; Happy Seeder Rs 1.5-1.75 lakh; Rotavator Rs 1.15 lakh; Mulcher Rs 1.7 lakh; MB Plough Rs 2 lakh; and Baler Rs 14 to 20 lakh. But the CHCs get financial assistance of 80 per cent from the Centre. 

The Union government has also launched a multilingual mobile app, CHC Farm Machinery to help farmers hire machinery from CHCs located within 50 km radius of their farms. 

Where does the money go?

The Centre launched a scheme, “Promotion of Agricultural Mechanization for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the State of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh & NCT of Delhi” with a total outgo of Rs 1151.80 crore for the period 2018-19 to 2019-20. During 2019-20, funds amounting to Rs 273.80 crore, Rs 192.06 crore and Rs 105.29 crore have also been released to the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, respectively.

In its 2020-21 Budget announced on February 28th, Haryana government allocated Rs 454 crore for management of crop residue. Besides, last month, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal introduced a comprehensive Rs 1,304 crore plan for crop residue management. The Punjab government allocated Rs 20 crore for crop residue management for the fiscal 2020-21.

 The machines need an around 45 hp (horse power) tractor to operate, working at a rate of 0.25-0.35 hectares per hour. Their operating constrains include a lower machine capacity as compared to conventional seed drills and inability to operate in wet straw.

For the small farmers, the cost of hiring the machine is steep. Moreover, There is no standardized rental rate. Farmers can end up paying anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 6,000 per acre. For the farmers it makes more sense to pay a fine of Rs 2,500 on paddy burning than hire a machine. 

 “Farmers are in favour of deploying the machines as burning stubble leads to a massive loss of natural productive elements, such as micro-organisms and useful worms and insects, which get burnt in the process,” says Sukhdev Singh, a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). “Moreover, precious organic material also gets burnt”.

Environmental scientists estimate that for every acre of land where paddy straw is burnt, there is a loss of 5.5 kg ofnitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphates, 25 kg potassium and about two tonnes of manure. As for emissions, about three tons of carbon dioxide, 120 kg of carbon monoxide, six kg of particulate matter, four kg of sulphur dioxide, and 400 kg of ash are released per acre.

“Systems should also be in place to sell the straw or stubble, which can be used in a variety of ways, from electricity generation and manure to manufacture of furniture, bedding material, flooring and tiles,” added Sukhdev Singh. “A farmer cannot be expected to go about selling the stubble. Mechanisms that make economic sense for farmers and factories would be win-win for all”.

“We should stop blaming the farmers, instead we should propose methods that are economically and ecologically desirable”

Dr M S Swaminathan, Agricultural Scientist

Operational challenges

Various experts have recommended a holistic approach to tackle this problem. While mechanized management of crop residue is needed, it should make economic sense, promote agricultural and environmental issues and create awareness and capacity building for farmers.

“We should stop blaming the farmers, instead we should propose methods that are economically and ecologically desirable,” said eminent agricultural scientist Dr M S Swaminathan in an e-mail response. “Since the organic matter content of our soils is low, I have recommended that the rice straw, which is being burnt in Punjab and Haryana, should be incorporated in the soil to improve both soil physics and moisture holding capacity”.

CHC as a concept is not new, says Chandrakant Pradhan, Lead-Climate Change Resilience, CII Foundation. Over the last two years, Punjab has been setting them up through cooperative societies, which are encouraged to buy machines at a subsidized cost and rent them out to farmers. Entrepreneurs, informal farmers’ groups and FPOs (Farmer Producer Organisations) are also eligible to set up CHCs.

Haryana is promoting CHCs mostly through entrepreneurs or through informal groups of farmers. “Success of the scheme this season, however, will  primarily depend on how effectively demand for large scale use of machines is created,” Pradhan said.

According to ICAR, Punjab is likely to see paddy cultivation in around 27 lakh hectares (ha) this season. This is down from 31 lakh ha last year. The state average productivity is about 3.9 tonnes/ha. Around 200 lakh tonnes of paddy straw is generated per year.

Haryana has about 13 lakh ha under rice cultivation. The state’s average productivity is about 3.1 tonnes/ha. Around 12 lakh tonnes of paddy straw is generated every year in the state.

The operational challenges vary depending upon the ownership structure. Sukhdev Singh said big farmers hire most of the machines. “Farmers with 2-4 acre land holdings are left out,” he said.

Corroborating this, Pradhan said private CHCs tend to associate mostly with farmers with large land holdings, who have the resources to pay the hiring charges. Such farmers come together to form CHCs and once they get the subsidy benefit on the machines they keep the machines for their own use and do not rent them out to others, which defeats the whole purpose of the CHC.

“It is not yet clear whether the CHC is a viable business model in the long run,” adds Pradhan. “The capital cost requirement is significant even after subsidy. Considering that O&M (operation and maintenance) cost is also high, it remains to be seen how the business model play out in the long run”.

Cost deterrent

 Quality and after sales services are the other sticky issues. But the main deterrent is the high cost of the machines, even with the subsidy. “Typically, a cooperative would require 6-10 machines, for which they need to pay about Rs 5-6 lakh after subsidy,” says Pradhan.

“We have been giving a subsidy of 50 per cent to individual farmers and 80 per cent to cooperative societies for buying farm machines,” an official said. The National Green Tribunal order had directed the government to supply machinery free of cost to farmers owning less than two acres of land.

However, farmers are demanding a bonus of around Rs 200 per quintal or Rs 3,000 per acre while procuring paddy, as incentive to those who do not burn stubble. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh had last year written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a compensation of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy as incentive.

“Our demand is Rs 5,000 per acre,” said Sukhdev Singh, adding that last year’s compensation had not yet been given.

The way forward

“We always adopt the ‘don’t’ philosophy and not the ‘do’ philosophy, which I have been advocating for a long time,” said Dr M S Swaminathan. Farmers would like to remove the rice stubble on time for sowing wheat. One way, Swaminathan points out, is the environmentally destructive method of burning the straw in the field leading to smog. The other is to find economic use of the straw.

“While Punjab, Haryana and Western UP are rich in rice straw, it is not used as animal fodder, while states like Rajasthan, MP, Maharashtra and Karnataka lack enough animal feed. It will be ideal if the fodder deficient states tie up with Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. It could be a win-win situation both for the farmers and for the environment,” he said.

“Providing machinery is just one part of the solution,” adds Pradhan. “Farmers also need training to run these machines to get optimum results. Lack of such training discourages farmers from using these machines as they don’t get desired results.”

Which means Delhi is unlikely to get any relief from burning, smoke and smog this year too.

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