Finding Solutions to Stubble Burning

In Punjab and Haryana, the paddy crop is usually harvested between the first and last weeks of October. Farmers then sow the wheat crop from the first week of November until the middle of December.

These farmers regularly complain about the menace of rice straw – a product of mechanised agriculture – exacerbated by shortage of labour and lack of time. When paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher, the machine leaves behind a significant length of straw and stubble on the field. This prevents other machines from sowing wheat seeds. With only 10-15 days between the rice-harvesting season and the wheat-sowing time, farmers often burn the stubble to quickly eliminate the paddy stubble. According to some estimates, farmers burned about 11 million tonnes of stubble in Punjab and Haryana, out of the 27 million tonnes of paddy stubble produced last year. The numbers are likely to be similar this year.

This way is very easy for them – but the huge clouds of smoke that rise up blow into Delhi, contributing significantly to the national capital’s notorious wintertime air pollution.

Apart from contributing to air pollution, stubble-burning deteriorates the soil’s organic content, essential nutrients and microbial activity – which together will reduce the soil’s long-term productivity. Stubble burning has been prohibited or discouraged in many countries, including China, the UK and Australia. In India, although both the Centre and state governments have encouraged alternatives, for example by promoting the use of new machines and technologies, farmers have been reluctant to adopt them.

Instead, they find the traditional way of stubble-burning to be easier, low cost and time-efficient, compared to alternatives that demand more time, investment and labour.

Alternative methods

If farmers wish to remove stubble manually, they will need at least Rs 6,000-7,000 per acre. To reduce these costs, as well as save labour and time, the Government of Punjab distributed 24,000 tractor-mounted ‘happy seeders’ to cut down the rice stubble and sow wheat seeds simultaneously. To use a ‘happy seeder’ over one acre, farmers have to spend Rs 1,000 for rent plus about Rs 2,000 on diesel.

Even when farmers have expressed a willingness to adopt happy seeders, availability and suitability have been important issues. A single happy seeder covers 10 acre in a day. Punjab state requires 50,000 happy seeders to clear its 75 lakh acres of paddy fields in 15 days, but the government only distributed 24,000. In addition, farmers have also complained about problems while sowing and low germination of wheat seeds, when sown with ‘happy seeders’. Many machines have been dumped only after two years of use.

Officials have also advertised a machine called a straw baler – to compress crop residue into compact bales – to bale rice stubbles and moving them out of the field. But it flopped because the machine takes an hour for every acre, typically producing 12-15 quintals of bales. Earlier, baler-owners would provide their services free of cost and would make up for their time and labour by selling the bales to biomass factories nearby. However, this year, they are charging Rs 1,000-1,500 per acre. The state government may arrange to procure the stubble, along with paddy grain, by hiring balers to work for free for the farmers. The stubbles can then be sold to biomass-based power plants, paper mills and cardboard factories.

Another machine is the paddy straw chopper-cum-spreader – to chop paddy straw left behind on mechanically harvested paddy fields. It chops the straw into pieces and spreads it around the field in a single operation, so wheat-sowing becomes easy. It is a mounted-type machine and can be operated by a tractor with 45-50 HP or more.

Yet another alternative is the accelerated straw decomposition process. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has developed a solution it has named ‘Pusa’, which can decompose crop residue into manure by accelerating the decomposition process. These agents act on the straw to make it soft and ploughable, break down its molecular components and release the nutrients into the field. As a result, Pusa may reduce the use and cost of fertilisers and could help increase the yield of the subsequent crop. It costs less than Rs 1,000 per acre.

A third option is to convert stubble into biochar, which can be used as a fertiliser, by burning it in a kiln. For this purpose, a kiln has to be 10 ft wide and 14 ft high, and be able to accommodate 12 quintals of rice straw and convert it into 6.5 quintals of biochar in 10-12 hours.

In the longer term, another way to reduce stubble burning is to replace long-duration paddy varieties with shorter duration varieties like Pusa Basmati-1509 and PR-126, which can be harvested in the third week of September itself. This will widen the window between the end of the rice season and start of the wheat season, allowing enough time for the paddy stubble to decompose, and eliminate the need for stubble-burning.

Apart from all this, the state government needs to popularise the traditional use of paddy straw and stubble as fodder and as part of feed-mixture preparations. This can happen locally as well as can be stored and transported to deficit areas like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, by developing the fodder and feed markets.

Incentives to adopt alternative technologies

The Punjab government has resolved to make the state a zero stubble-burning zone. To this end, it offers a 50% subsidy on machines for individual farmers and 80% for cooperative societies and farmers’ groups. Last year, the governments of Punjab and Haryana also announced a bonus of Rs 2,500 per acre for small and marginal farmers. If the bonus is given directly to farmers, it could compensate the expenses incurred by avoiding stubble-burning. However, some farmers have said that most farmers don’t receive the bonus of Rs 2,500 per acre.

Last year, the Supreme Court asked the Punjab and Haryana governments to provide Rs 100 per quintal to small farmers to manage the stubble; given that the average productivity is 25.6 quintal per acre in Punjab, they may receive about Rs 2,560 per acre. But it seems many farmers don’t receive the amount – even though the government has assigned 8,000 nodal officers to oversee the compensation exercise, to prevent stubble-burning, and to increase awareness of alternate technologies.

Governments have also been punishing farmers using monetary penalties for stubble-burning. Last year, over 52,000 farm fires were reported in Punjab alone after the paddy harvest season. In over 23,000 cases, an environmental fine was imposed on farmers, and ‘red entries’ were made against their land records. Errant farmers were together reportedly fined Rs 6.1 crore. However, they have deposited only Rs 1 lakh thus far. Collecting fines from farmers is difficult, but more importantly doing so creates a hostile environment for local agricultural development functionaries.

Farmers have a tough time unlearning the age-old practice of stubble-burning. Alternatives to stubble burning are not popular because they impose additional operational expenses, often from the farmer’s pocket. On the other hand, stubble-burning only requires a matchbox. Further, most of the custom hiring centres are also unwilling to purchase these machinery upfront – as they can be operated only for 15 days in a year, after which they have no use.

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In sum, the government has to either increase monetary incentives or offer technologies and policies that don’t require farmers to spend even more. It seems that imposing penalties only makes the problem harder to solve.

There are multiple alternatives to stubble burning, and farmers can choose between the technologies and machines most suited to their particular local conditions, with the objective of ‘no burning’. The government should play the part of an enabler by spreading awareness about the pros and cons of each option, so as to eliminate confusion and ease the adoption of new technologies by removing socio-economic barriers. For this, the state governments can rope in block-level agricultural officers and officials of agricultural produce market committees to develop and implement comprehensive ‘no burning’ strategies at the local level. more  

View all 26 comments Below 26 comments
Very informative note. Taking into precedence the fact that about 8 to 9 lakhs tractors are sold in India, a rotavator, which is just an auxiliary attachment that does the work of crop residue removal. Not just that, doing so helps helps to improve soil health. Rotavators may be freely distributed with each tractor sold, as a socio-economic, environmentally responsible compensation towards farming that mechanisation helped revolutionise. Tractors and Farming equipment manufacturers can certainly afford this much especially when such an act works as a solution. more  
You have mentioned almost everything related to stubble burning with clarity. The decomposition process though could be a game changer if it works effectively, let the results come out. Yes, we have alternative solution and the onus lies on administration to build trust, confidence over these substitutions and support farmers more appropriately. Let government carry this burden until it is successful. The rest will follow.

There needs to be more engagements with the farmers, as they are at the center of this change. You cannot just give the solution, see we have that for you. These innocent people may not even understand the pollution terms effectively, let them embrace it with awareness and trust. more  
in this regard i had forwarded good remedy through my mail to cm , delhi through his offical mail id simple process of scrubbing the pollutant air and scrubbing the same and fresh air can be released into atmosphere . we at manali ,chennai experiencing heavy chemical polluted climate always but if rain comes we feel easy to breath and we feel clear vision without any dust particles in our area because rain water washes out all pollutants down to earth. natrual scrubbing takes place if you require any proof you can recommend anyone if possible in our circle to monitor present situation at manali and after rainy season, the histroy of air pollution will come back . this is what we are experiencing for last 50 years as per my knowledge because of my present age of 63 . more  
In 2018 a study by the Central Electricity Authority of India (CEA) and the Japan Coal Energy Centre (Jcoal), a Japanese institution, said the 440-megawatt plant, shut since 2017, could be refurbished to generate clean power. The plant would burn agro-residues (Stubbles), in addition to coal, and thereby not only emit less but also help avert the thick smog generated by stubble burning in the region.

Co-firing offers a win-win solution for India. Under the technology, a part of the plant’s base fuel, coal, is replaced with biomass and burnt either in the same boiler or in separate units. This results in a sharp decrease in pollution load, particularly in regions where stubble burning is prevalent. more  
we have to find ways and means of using residue in agriculture-nothing is waste in nature more  
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