Farm pollution: The last straw

“The combine that I am using (manufactured by Gurdeep Engineering Works) has the Super-SMS fitment. And it works well,” says this farmer from Kalar Majri in Nabha tehsil of Patiala district.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Published: September 14, 2017 2:22 am
stubble burning, punjab stubble burning, paddy harvesting, Super Straw Management System, indian express, india news Stubble from the harvested paddy being burnt in fields near Panipat, Haryana. Express photo by Amit Mehra

For the past two years, Birdalvinder Singh has been harvesting paddy without resorting to burning any left-over straw on his 15-acre land. The reason for it is the combine harvester used by him, which is fitted with a Super Straw Management System (Super-SMS). Unlike normal combines that cut the paddy crop from above and leave behind 10-12 inch-long stubble, this attachment in the rear of the machine cuts the straw into 4-5 inch pieces and spreads these uniformly in the field. The cut straw can be ploughed back — or even left as it is for sowing of wheat using a zero-till ‘Happy Seeder’ — rather than being burnt, a practice that has drawn the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) ire in view of causing environmental pollution.

“The combine that I am using (manufactured by Gurdeep Engineering Works) has the Super-SMS fitment. And it works well,” says this farmer from Kalar Majri in Nabha tehsil of Patiala district.

Sukhwinder Singh is a farmer from Sarai Jattan village of Kapurthala district’s Sultanpur Lodhi tehsil, who also owns three combines and three Happy Seeders. The combines have the Super-SMS attachments, which he used last year to harvest paddy on 250 acres, including 40 acres of his own and the rest belonging to other farmers. “Since 2006, I have not been burning paddy straw. But till 2014, I was doing this through other machines like rotavator, mould board plough, choppers and mulchers to shred the straw and incorporate into the field. With Super-SMS, which I first used two years ago, my job has become simpler,” he points out.

Farmers burn left-over paddy straw after combine-harvesting — which happens from early-October — because they need to plant the succeeding wheat crop within a month or so. “The combination of Super-SMS with Happy Seeder has dispensed with this requirement. If the left-over stubble can be cut and spread evenly in the field, you can sow wheat directly using the Happy Seeder. Such straw works as a mulch, which helps improve the wheat stand and also conserve moisture. Last year, strong winds led to large-scale lodging (flattening) of the wheat in my area, but nothing happened to my crop. Also, I need to irrigate my crop only twice now, as against the normal 4-5 times,” claims Singh.

Jagdeep Singh Kanoi used Super SMS-fitted combines on eight of his 40 acres land under paddy last year. It was a successful experiment. “This year, all farmers in my village have taken a pledge to use this system on our entire 800 acres paddy crop. We have got Super SMS attached to both the combines working on our fields,” declares this farmer from Kanoi village in Sangrur tehsil-cum-district.

Punjab farmers grow paddy on about 30 lakh hectares (lh), of which roughly 25 lh are under ‘parmal’ varieties that are combine-harvested.

The balance 5 lh is under basmati paddy, which get manually harvested and leave no stubble. The state produces nearly 200 lakh tonnes (lt) of paddy straw, of which 26-27 is from basmati (which is usable as fodder) and another 16-17 lt goes as feedstock for biomass-based power plants. That leaves 155-160 lt of combine-harvested straw that is mostly burnt in the fields. The resultant field fires – just around the time of Diwali – have been the source of dense smog and low visibility during October-November, whose effects extend to Delhi and beyond.

The Punjab government, last week, announced a subsidy of Rs 50,000 on installation of Super-SMS systems on combine harvesters. This came after the NGT, in its last hearing on September 1, asked the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to provide details of incentives, particularly to small farmers, to dissuade them from stubble burning. Earlier, the Punjab government had made fitting of Super-SMS systems mandatory for all combines that would be harvesting the currently standing paddy crop from October 1. It also fixed penalties on stubble burning, amounting to Rs 2,500 for small farmers owning less than two acres and up to Rs 15,000 for those with over five acres. A group of farmers have alleged before the NGT that the state government was simply issuing orders, without providing compensation or incentives to farmers for not resorting to burning.

H S Sidhu, senior research engineer with the Ludhiana-based Borlaug Institute for South Asia, estimates that a farmer using Super-SMS has to spend only Rs 1,400-1,500 per acre for harvesting paddy and another Rs 1,000 for sowing wheat with the Happy Seeder. With an ordinary combine, he would spend Rs 1,000-1,100 for harvesting and Rs 1,500 to cut the stubble, followed by Rs 1,000 for a rotavator operation and finally Rs 1,000 for sowing wheat with either Happy Seeder or rotavator. “Those who say the Super-SMS will burden farmers are mistaken”, he observes.

Manmohan Kalia, joint director with the Punjab agriculture department, reckons that the Super-SMS can be fitted into 7,500-8,000 of the self-propelled combines, which harvest 95 per cent of the state’s paddy area. “With that, you can take care of whole stubble burning problem,” he says, while accusing a section of combine manufacturers of misleading and instigating farmers.

Sarabjit Singh, owner of Dashmesh Mechanical Works, a leading combine maker near Nabha, believes the Super-SMS is a viable solution to the paddy stubble burning problem. “In the past few weeks alone, we have fitted some 50 machines with it,” he states. According to Sohan Singh of Gurdeep Engineering Works at Bhadson in Patiala district, a normal combine costs Rs 18 lakh, while it would be Rs 19.25-19.50 lakh for that fitted with Super-SMS.

A Rs 50,000 subsidy should be incentive enough to make the change — and promote the cause of clean environment.

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