Agriculture and Pollution: Tackling a burning problem with technology

The poor adoption of a machine that can help avoid paddy stubble burning is an example of policy failure.

Written by Divya Goyal , Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar/ludhiana | Published:November 10, 2016 5:22 am
  air pollution, pollution, agriculture pollution, slash and burn, paddy burning, stubble burning, air quality, delhi air pollution, punjab agricultural university, indian express news, india news, pollution updates A farmer near Ludhiana sowing wheat in a combine-harvested paddy field using Happy Seeder. Express Photo

There is virtual unanimity — at least among scientists and aware farmers — that the ultimate solution to the recurrent problem of paddy stubble burning at this time of the year lies in the ‘Happy Seeder’ developed by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in 2002. But more than a decade later, the tractor-operated machine, which allows wheat seeds to be directly drilled in fields even with standing stubble or loose straw from combine-harvested paddy, is yet to find broad acceptance among farmers.

“The adoption of the Happy Seeder is low and farmers are not adopting this technology on a large scale,” a recent research proposal note from the PAU seeking funds for undertaking more field-level demonstrations has admitted. According to Gursahib Singh Manes, head of the Ludhiana-based varsity’s department of farm machinery and power engineering, only around 6,400 hectares out of the total 35 lakh hectares area under wheat in Punjab last year was sown using Happy Seeder. Also, just 620 such machines are operating in the state, despite a government subsidy of Rs 48,000 against its purchase cost of around Rs 1.30 lakh.

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“The issue isn’t of price alone. Why should anybody, especially a small farmer, buy a machine for use just for a single crop once a year? This is unlike, say, a rotavator that is used in field preparation for all types of crops,” says Rajmohan Singh Kaleka, a 20-acre PAU award-winning farmer from Bishanpur Chhana village in Patiala.

“When we started selling it in 2006, the cost was Rs 90,000, which has since gone up Rs 1.30 lakh. Ironically even after a decade, farmers do not know what Happy Seeder really is. We ourselves have sold a mere 500 units all these years,” says Joginder Singh of the Ajnala (Amritsar)-based Kamboj Mechanical Works, the largest manufacturer of the machine and a research partner of PAU in the project. “The state government has done little to promote it. Even the subsidy isn’t paid on time and that further discourages the farmer who, in any case, has the option to simply burn the left-over paddy stubble in his field. Why should we produce and stock the machines if there’s no demand?” he asks.

Harvesting paddy using combines leaves behind 14-15 inch long stalks, which farmers find uneconomical. With a Happy Seeder, the farmer can actually harvest paddy and plant wheat the same day, without the need for clearing the left-over stubble. There have been issues relating to uniform spreading of loose straw, which is a precondition for the machine’s smooth operation. To solve this, PAU developed a separate straw management system (SMS) as an attachment to the combine harvesters: As the combine harvests and threshes the paddy, the attached machine behind it evenly distributes the crop residue in the field. The university has recently also modified the Happy Seeder itself by attaching a ‘press-wheel’ to the machine, which again helps in formation of uniform rows as the stubble gets settled and enabling the wheat seeds to be neatly sown.

“When you sow wheat directly in paddy stubble, the germinated plants aren’t visible for a few days. As a result, farmers get worried and they develop a misconception that the seeds haven’t been sown properly. But that again calls for creating awareness, which is the job of the government”, notes a PAU scientist who does not want to be identified.

Navdeep Singh, a farmer from Samrai village in Gurdaspur’s Fatehgarh Churian tehsil, has been sowing wheat with Happy Seeder on his 35-acre land for the past four years. He is literally ‘happy’ with the results. “I paid Rs 55,000 for this machine then, after availing the Punjab government’s 50 per cent subsidy. After my paddy is combine-harvested, I use a straw reaper to cut and spread the left-over stubble. Once that is done, I go for direct sowing of wheat with my Happy Seeder”, he explains. The biggest advantage here this is the saving in field preparation, as in the traditional method the farmer has to undertake at least a couple of tillages, disc plough operations and plankings. In addition, the field has to be irrigated once and left for ten days for the seed bed to have optimum moisture. “The Happy Seeder does away with all these operations and I save up to Rs 2,000 in production costs per acre”, he adds.

Amrik Singh from Kalanaur, also in Gurdaspur district, claims that the Happy Seeder has helped in improving the soil fertility of his field. “This has happened because of incorporation of the paddy straw residue in the land, which isn’t possible through burning. I am today getting 26-27 quintals per acre wheat yields, which is, in fact, a little higher than from the traditional wheat sowing method. Moreover, my production costs are low and there is no pollution caused by burning of straw”, he claims.

But these farmers obviously represent a tiny minority.

HS Sidhu, senior research engineer with the Borlaug Institute for South Asia at Ludhiana, feels that the adoption of Happy Seeder is low only because of poor enforcement of the ban on burning paddy stubble. “The benefits, in terms of better yield and improved soil fertility, take time to show up. A way to force farmers to think long term is through effective implementation of the law against crop residue burning”, he observes.

Sidhu, who was earlier with PAU and involved in developing the Happy Seeder, also believes that there is no necessity for the farmer himself to invest in the machine: “We already have the model of custom hiring in combine harvesters. What stops the combine owner to also have an SMS attachment along Happy Seeders? Just as farmers are now paying Rs 1,200 per acre for getting their paddy harvesting and threshed, the combine owner can charge a similar amount for also doing the job of wheat sowing using two tractor-mounted Happy Seeders,” he says.