Fields on fire: Burning paddy straw

Every year around this time, farmers in Haryana and Punjab set paddy stubble ablaze to prepare ground for the next crop. In the process, they damage soil quality and cause heavy pollution but they say they have no alternative.

Written by Khushboo Sandhu | Kurukshetra | Updated: October 10, 2016 4:05 am
stubble, stubble burn, slash and burn, slash and burn farming, haryana farmers, punjab farmers, haryana stubble, punjab stubble, wheat paddy cycle, pollution, stubble pollution, health problems, indian express news, india news A farmer tilling his fields after burning paddy straw at Charuni village in Kurukshetra. Source: Sahil Walia

Plumes of smoke are rising from the fields on National Highway 1. By the end of October or sooner, the smoke will be a thick blanket in the air over Haryana, extending all the way to the national capital. It’s the season for paddy stubble burning.

In this district of Kurukshetra, harvested paddy fields are now black with ash. In between the wheat-paddy cycle, some farmers grow potatoes or mustard. The sowing of these crops has already started at some places.

Karambir, a farmer at Charuni Jattan village, follows the wheat-paddy cycle every year. Having harvested paddy from half of his six acres of land, Karambir did what a majority of other farmers in his village are doing. He set the paddy stubble on fire.

“The farmers have no option but to burn the stubble. Earlier when we were harvesting with our hands, the crop was cut in such a way that we could make bundles of stubble to be utilised as fodder or send to cardboard-making factories. Now, when we use combines for harvesting, the stubble that remains is of no use. Rather, it creates problems as it does not mix in the soil. The only option is to burn the fields and then turn the soil before sowing the next crop,” said Karambir.

Most farmers The Indian Express spoke to here share Karambir’s opinion. They say while they know burning fields robs the soil of its nutrients, they have no alternative.

At a little distance from Karambir’s fields are four acres owned by another farmer, Shakti. Standing on his burnt field, Shakti says labour for cutting the crops manually is not easily available. Further, the labourers charge Rs 4,000 per acre for harvesting and take around three to four hours. On the other hand, those giving combines on rent charge Rs 1,200 per acre. With the use of combines, an acre can be harvested in half an hour, says Shakti, adding for the farmers this is more economical.

During the 2015 harvest, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board did a survey in 10 paddy growing districts in the state with the help of Haryana Space Application Centre (HARSAC), an agency of Department of Science and Technology. The districts surveyed were Ambala, Fatehabad, Jind, Kaithal, Karnal, Kurukshetra, Panipat, Sirsa Sonipat and Yamunanagar.

The survey showed a decline of around 21 per cent in crop burning practice in the past three years. In the year 2015, stubble burning took place in 163 thousand hectares, which was 14.4 per cent of the total rice cropped area. A year earlier, in 2014, stubble burning was witnessed in 168.9 thousand hectares or 15.7 percent of the rice cropped area. The figure was 208.3 thousand hectares or 20.3 per cent of the rice cropped area in 2013.

The survey said the total paddy stubble burning area in the 10 districts had come down by 3.5 percentage points as compared to 2014 and 21.8 percentage points as compared to 2013.

In eight districts, there was a marked reduction in stubble burning. In Kurukshetra and Yamunanagar alone, there was an increase. The decline appears to have not made a significant impact on the air quality in those two years. The report also indicated that early rice stubble burning in major area takes place during second to fourth week of October in Karnal, Kaithal, Kurukshetra, Ambala and Panipat. While late burning in major areas takes place during first week to third week of November in rest of the districts.

A farmer at Chanarthal village in Kurukshetra, who also burnt the stubble in his fields, said he wanted to plant mustard in a day or two, but it would be impossible if it were not for the burning. “The officials take decisions without knowing ground realities. If the government wants us to stop burning the stubble, they should provide some alternatives. What do we do with the stubble,” he said, not willing to be named.

President of Bharatiya Kisan Union in the state, Sewa Singh Arya, says, “The stubble that is left after harvesting using combines is not usable as fodder. Using a tractor shreds it to pieces. If the stubble is not set on fire, then the next crop cannot be sown. There is a need for the government to provide some incentives to the farmers.”

The Haryana State Pollution Control Board has prepared a strategy to tackle the problem. All Deputy Commissioners have been advised to issue necessary directions to all the revenue field officials like BDPOs, tehsildars and patwaris to instruct the sarpanchs and panchs in the villages for persuading and educating the farmers on the ban and on the harmful effects of such acts.

All DCs have also been advised to direct the gram sachivs and patwaris to bring all the incidents of burning of wheat stubble or paddy straw and other agricultural waste in the open fields to his notice within 30 minutes of the occurrence of such incidents. In case they fail to do so, it shall be treated as dereliction of duty and disciplinary action would be initiated against them.

Apart from HARSAC being asked to monitor stubble burning in the 10 districts, Central Pollution Control Board has also been requested to share the satellite imagery reports / data obtained from ISRO on a daily basis.

The government has decided to launch a pilot project for paddy straw based biomass power project. An official said government or panchayat land would be explored for setting up of the project and storage of biomass.

Further, power utilities will buy power from the biomass power projects on the HERC tariff or better tariff. The agriculture department will support the setting up of bio-fertilizer plants using biomass and would devise a scheme to provide subsidy and to buy the fertilizer from such plants.

Haryana Agriculture Minister O P Dhankar said awareness is being created among the farmers. He added once a biomass power project is set up, the farmers will have an incentive not to burn the stubble.