Updated: November 16, 2021 3:11:52 pm
On stubble burning, the refrain from Punjab’s farm fields can be summed up in one word: “Majboori (helplessness)”.
Here, fields go from yellow to a scorched black in a few minutes — a quick burning that takes its toll on the air overhead and further away, in the national capital where the contentious practice is at the heart of a Supreme Court hearing on air pollution.
On Monday, Punjab’s numbers were flagged in an annexure to the Centre’s affidavit in the apex court.
The annexure — the minutes of a meeting Sunday of the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas —states that in Punjab, “about 42,285 incidences have been reported in last 10 days alone out of a cumulative fire count of 62,863 till November 13, 2021, during this season”.
On the ground, The Indian Express travelled across Patiala, Sangrur, Barnala and Bathinda, the state’s southern districts near Delhi, where farmers pointed to a mix of factors that have forced them to reach for the matchstick — from expensive alternatives to a shrinking harvest window.
In Sangrur’s Tungan village, gusts of smoke carry black wisps of burnt straw towards Gagandeep Sharma as the 24-year-old watches his small farm land burn. “Untimely rainfall this year delayed the paddy harvest. The fields are usually cleared by this time of the year in preparation for the rabi crop,” he says.
The fields are ablaze from around noon onwards. So much so that the sun is barely visible, says Malkeer Singh, a farmer in Sangrur’s Mangwal village. “We don’t like to do this either, but this is our majboori,” he says.
In a state that relies heavily on mechanised agriculture, Gagandeep and his father own no farm machinery, just “five bighas and our pride”. A combine harvester is rented for the harvest, and a rotavator to mix the leftover stubble back into the soil after burning. The quick fire only chars the hay, and not the harder stubble at the bottom that some farmers burn.
“Give us the money to dispose of the straw without burning it or buy it from us,” says Gagandeep.
Kalwinder Singh, another farmer in Sangrur, with 5 acres of land, agrees. “The system is expensive, so small farmers resort to burning. Labour to clear the fields manually can cost Rs 5,000-6,000 per acre,” he says.
In the southern districts, PUSA-44, a high yielding and late maturing variety of paddy is dominant, according to L S Kurinji, programme associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. This leaves farmers with only a small window to clear the field and sow wheat, says Gagandeep.
If the Government procures other crops at minimum support price, farmers will sow these instead of water-guzzling paddy, says Harmel Singh, a farmer in Barsat village of Patiala. Burning residue destroys “good” organisms from the soil as well, he points out.
The Pusa bio decomposer, a solution meant to be sprayed on fields to help decompose stubble, endorsed by the Delhi government for farmers in the capital region, is not accessible for several farmers in Punjab. Harmel Singh says a private company had sprayed the solution on a field but many do not know where to get the solution from.
The system to buy or rent agricultural equipment needs fine-tuning, according to the farmers. A subsidy of 50 per cent is provided to individual farmers and 80 per cent to cooperative societies to purchase select farm machinery. But tractors — a “farmer’s life”, as Malkeer Singh puts it — are not eligible for subsidy.
“The tractor needs to be subsidised along with the other implements on the list,” says Gurjant Singh, a farmer in Laleana village of Bathinda, who also rents out a superseeder.
A superseeder operated by a powerful tractor of around 70 HP will avoid burning, according to Gurjant. A superseeder can remove stubble and sow wheat simultaneously. “But a powerful tractor is expensive and not subsidised. A superseeder used with a smaller tractor does not help with the hay that forms the upper part of the hard stubble,” he says.
A Straw Management System (SMS) operated by a combine harvester can cut up the stubble and make it easier for other machines to turn it into the soil, says Harmel Singh. But smaller farmers might choose not to rent one, considering the additional cost.
Besides, the SMS is considered to be a fuel guzzling method, Gurjant says, adding that nobody in his village had bought it.
Across these districts, groups of farmers have also registered as cooperative societies that rent out farm implements. But to how many farmers can the societies rent out implements within a short period, asks Gagandeep.
Harmel points out that the sole cooperative society for seven villages in Patiala, including Barsat, Kishangarh and Sultanpur, does not have a superseeder. Three farmers in Barsat village rent it out and it runs all day and night, he says.
A credit cooperative society in Laleana village, with about 400 members, does not own any farm machinery since it does not have the finances to purchase them, says a local official.
The area under paddy cultivation in Sangrur and adjoining Malerkotla districts is 2,90,000 hectares, according to J S Grewal, Chief Agriculture Officer, Sangrur. In Sangrur, a total of 2,085 machines were given subsidies in 2020-21, up from 1,555 in 2019-20, and down from 2706 in 2018-19.
According to Krunesh Garg, Member Secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board, there were 9,343 incidents of stubble burning this season, and a total environmental compensation amount of Rs 2,62,52,500 has been imposed.
Back in Bathinda, some fields have straw stacked in small, rectangular bales. Says Gurjant: “If a system was created to purchase the bales of hay, we can invest in more of them. A baling machine works perfectly well to remove the straw, but what will we do with the straw after it is packed?”
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