Burning crop residue after harvest on the field itself is common in Madhya Pradesh. One may not always get to see the flames but what cannot be missed are large tracts of fields blackened by soot that tell the tale of an agricultural practice government advisories have not been able to curb.
To tide over a shortage of farmhands and save money and time,farmers simply burn the residue,not only endangering their own fields,but also trees and,occasionally nearby properties. Its not easy to keep the fire under control,especially in summer. Wheat is harvested in summer.
It takes less than a rupee to set fire to an entire field, a labourer armed with a matchbox tells The Indian Express while guarding a field in flames 50 km from Bhopal. What if the fire spreads to nearby huts? Thats the headache of that farm owner,not mine. My brief is to burn the residue.
At the other end of the field stands the only preventive against the fire from spreading beyond the field: a man holding a stick.
The practice makes a mockery of organic farming,which the government is trying to promote.
The shortage of farmhands has come about as workers prefer to take up projects under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). The shortage has led to increased use of the combine harvester,a machine that makes harvesting easier and faster but leaves behind a lot of residue.
Apart from the shortage of farm workers,the main reason for the practice,another one is ignorance among farmers about the damage it can cause to their farms. The fire kills all bacteria,including the symbiotic bacteria that aid plants up to an inch below the surface. The fire changes the character of the micro-nutrients,rendering them useless for plants,and also decreases the water retention capacity of the soil. It gradually kills soil fertility.
We try to create awareness against the practice but farmers continue it because of ignorance, says director,agriculture,Dr D N Sharma. Lack of resources has hurt government initiatives to promote,through subsidy,deep ploughing that is known to increase yield and control weeds.
Burning of crop residue,a problem partly caused by mechanisation,can be solved by more mechanization,according to former director of agriculture G S Kaushal. Kaushal says the government should either ban combine harvesters altogether or allow their use only when accompanied by straw reapers,machines that remove the residue and convert it into fodder for cattle.
A few years ago,the administration of Vidisha district issued an order to make use of straw reapers compulsory with combine harvesters. A committee headed by Kaushal then submitted a report to the state government on improving agricultural practices and recommended that the burning of farm residue be made a cognisable offence.
Rajendra Khanuja,a farmer in Hoshangabad district,accuses the government of not doing much to end the practice. The practice is wrong but it has its advantages,such as killing several weeds, he says.
Ramkishore Rajput,a farmer from Bicchhua village in the same district,says the practice has many disadvantages but farmers resort to it out of compulsion. They often pay dearly for it. The mango and teak trees he had grown as a hobby on his field were destroyed by a fire that spread from the field.
No data has been,however,compiled on the extent of damage such fire accidents may have caused in the state.