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Monday, November 29, 2021

The ‘burning’ question

The Centre recently released data showing that it has already provided Rs 1,050.68 crore to tackle stubble management by agri-mechanisation.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar |
October 24, 2021 4:23:13 am
While only 925 stubble burning incidents were reported in first 23 days this year, the five days from October 12-21, saw 368 per cent jump taking the number to 4,327. (File Photo)

The battle to keep toxic haze from suffocating the environment seems like a lost one for another year. As kharif harvest picks pace, a grim spectre of farm fires licking up left over paddy stems is unfolding across Punjab with familiar regularity.

Only this time, the farmers are more determined not to stop no matter what the cost.

“Aggan tan iss vaari hor vi langgan gian jiddan-jiddan vaddi vadegi.. hunn sadha sarkar naal siddha takrao hai. Bhaven sadhe khetan da, mitti da, te hawa da nukksaan ho riha hai par sade kol hor koi chara nahin bacheya sarkar nu jagaun da te kisani nu bachaun da (Farm fires will increase in the days to come. We are in direct confrontation with the government. Even if it hurts our environment, our soil health, even then this is the only way left for us to wake up the government),” declares Buta Singh, a farmer from village Khichipur in Jalandhar, who owns 9 acres.
He then adds his reasons: “Till the time the government gives us advance money to manage paddy stubble, fires will never stop. They may distribute lakhs of subsidised stubble management machines, but those machines run on diesel.
In the past one year, diesel prices have gone up by 50 per cent.”

In the last one month (from September 19 to October 21), Punjab has seen 4,327 farm fires. While only 925 stubble burning incidents were reported in first 23 days, the five days from October 12-21, saw 368 per cent jump taking the number to 4,327. According to experts, even bigger spurt is on the anvil between November 1 to 10, when rush for sowing the next crop begins.

Farmer Sukhjit Singh Diwala of Diwala village in Ludhiana, who along with 10 more farmers runs a Custom Hiring Centre (CHC) ‘Sanjhi Kheti’ that owns all stubble management machines including two happy seeders, super SMS, chopper, mulcher, rotavator and others, said that their centre has not got even single booking for stubble management this time.

“We even offer our machines free-of-cost except tractors, but this year no one is interested in hiring them even then,” he said, adding that because of farmers’ agitation and election year, government officials are also avoiding any confrontation with the farmers, which will result in nothing but more fires.

Farmer Himmat Singh from Ludhiana’s Chak Kalan village said that stubble management machinery is not available to them when it is really needed.

“I have 7-acre land where I grow Pusa-44 which I harvest by October 25 and then I have to sow wheat by second week of November, but I hardly get any machine around that time, so I am left with no other option,” he said, adding that rising diesel prices had made using these machines unviable for small farmers.

In Punjab, Basmati Pusa-1509, an early variety is harvested first and it starts arriving in mandis from September 10, while the main varieties of paddy (non-basmati) are harvested from the first week of October.

Gurdeep Singh, secretary of Multipurpose Cooperative Agriculture Society in village Leelan under Sidhwan Bet, said that their society owns all the stubble management equipment and provides them on rent, but the number is not sufficient to manage stubble of the entire village, which has 2,500 acres of land.

“With three mulchers, two choppers, two super seeders and two happy seeders, we can neither manage stubble nor sow wheat in standing stubble on even one-third of the total land in a 15-20 days window that we have,” he said.

Gurdip Singh of Chak Kalan village, who also owns a farm machines bank, revealed that so far there has been no booking as his fellow farmers in the village are “more than willing to burn the stubble this time as resentment against the Centre against farm bills is at its peak”.

He added that since the state government is also worried for votes, there would be hardly any action against farmers and violators might have to pay a nominal fine imposed by the Punjab Pollution Control Board.

Most farmers, farmer union leaders, cooperative societies, and farm machinery bank owners that this reporter spoke to said that despite Centre-state’s in-situ stubble management programme, farm fires will not be less than last year. The programme, with help of stubble management machinery, not only incorporates stubble into the field, but also improves soil health, but farmers say that the scheme is not successful in Punjab.

The Diesel pinch

In Punjab, the consumption of diesel is 2.5 times higher than petrol. Nearly 40 per cent consumption of diesel is in the agri sector and 20 per cent petrol pumps, out of the total 3,400 in the state, are totally dependent on farm sector consumption.

Gurmeet Monty Sehgal, the spokesperson of Petrol Pump Dealers Association, Punjab, said that the government is looting farmers as the price of crude oil came down internationally and was lowest during the lockdown last year.
In February 18, 2020 diesel price was Rs 63.62 per litre, which is now Rs 96 per litre — over 50 per cent increase in 20 months period while crop rates are not increasing even 3-4 per cent, including the MSP given by the Centre on 23 crops.

“If we take just one operation in the field — paddy harvesting, a farmer will require to spend Rs 960 per acre on diesel cost only because a harvester consumes around 10 litre diesel per acre. In February 2020, this cost was Rs 636 per acre,” said farmer Satnam Singh of Rajjian village in Amritsar.

Farmer Jagdeep Singh of Kanoi Village in Sangrur, an owner of a combine harvester, said that earlier he used to charge Rs 1,800 per acre for harvesting, but now he will have to increase it by Rs 400 to 500 per acre because of the increasing diesel prices.

“Fire doesn’t cost farmers anything. Yes, there is a health cost and soil health cost, but they do not understand it,” he said, adding that farmers are spending a lot on health complications caused due to stubble burning.

Government initiatives

The Centre recently released data showing that it has already provided Rs 1,050.68 crore to tackle stubble management by agri-mechanisation.

In four years (2018-2021), Punjab got 76,600 machines till 2020 and 31,900 machines were sanctioned for 2021 paddy harvesting season. Out of this, 10,000 have been distributed. With this the number of machines stands at 86,000 and it will go up to 1 lakh by the end of this season.

Stubble management machines are provided at 50 per cent and 80 per cent subsidy to the individual farmers and farmer groups, respectively.

Apart from this, awareness programmes have been organised and an App launched to help farmers find availability of machinery near them.

Also, around 1.5 million tonnes of residue is being utilised in the industry under ex-Situ programme. And Pusa decomposer has been sprayed on 3,000 hectares, which helps decompose stubble into soil in 20-25 days.

The state also has 21,125 CHCs and a large number of individual farmers have purchased these subsidised machines.

Further, the state government has appointed 8,000 nodal officers to educate, motivate farmers against burning stubble since 2018 in 10,500 paddy sowing villages, including 1,000 villages that sow paddy on little area.

Reality check

In 2018, Centre started releasing money for subsidised machinery and this is the fourth year of that initiative. But stubble burning has also increased in the state since then.

The state recorded 50,590 fire incidents in 2018, which went up to 55,210 in 2019 and 76,582 in 2020. Within three years, there was a rise of over 21,000 fire incidents (146 per cent rise in 2020 from 2019).

In 2017, there were 45,384 stubble fires recorded in the state.

Also, in 2019, 17.93 lakh hectares and in 2018, stubble on 17.81 lakh hectares was burnt out of around 30-31 lakh hectares of rice area.

The big defaulters

Pathankot in Majha region, Nawanshahr in Doaba region, Mohali and Rupnagar of Puadh area, are the four districts where around 47,000 hectares saw field fires in 2019 against 17.93 lakh hectares across the state, which was just the 2 per cent of the total burnt area.

Nine districts, — Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Tarn Taran, Moga, Gurdaspur, Ferozepur, Jalandhar, Amritsar – were the biggest defaulters in 2019.

These nine burnt 87.17 per cent area by putting 15.63 lakh hectares under farm fires in the same year.
Most of these districts grow long duration varieties of paddy and farmers get only 5-7 days only to manage stubble with these varieties which is an insufficient period and also long duration varities generate more stubble.

Harvesting and sowing window

Harvesting and stubble burning both last for almost two months in the state. While harvesting starts from September 10 and ends by November first week, stubble burning begins from September 21 and ends by November 25, with peak burning time from October 30 to November 15.

According to Punjab Remote Sensing centre (PRSC), Ludhiana, 70 to 75 per cent fires take place during this peak period.

Farmers, who go for short paddy varieties, get at least 25 to 30 days between harvesting and sowing wheat and they can manage their stubble easily.

Then late varieties like Pusa-44, Pili Pusa and Basmati 1121 — all these varieties are grown on around 12 lakh hecatres (40 per cent) of the total rice area in the state — are harvested in October third week to November first week and farmers get just one week to 10 days to sow main wheat crop in the state. So, by this sequence in every subsequent Rabi crop after paddy harvesting, the time period left with farmers is a week to 10 days only, except in case of those who go for short paddy varieties followed by wheat sowing.

The deadlock

For farmers, field fires are a quick fix. Lack of awareness about machines and lack of proper crop planning is part of the problem.

Enforcement is also an issue as state politicians don’t want to antagonise a powerful lobby. Farmers have been demanding Rs 100 to Rs 200 per quintal paddy, as cash payout to manage stubble, but government has been reluctant to commit to it as a recurring cost will bleed the exchequer.

The way out

Experts still suggest that stubble management machines and subsidies to needy farmers are two best options.

Financial assistance to small and marginal farmers, who are around 68 per cent in the state, could also go a long way, they say. In places where sufficient machines are not available, the government can engage MGNREGA workers for clearing stubble. In November 2019, Punjab government had provided Rs 20 crore compensation to the small farmers on the directions of the Supreme Court.

Kisan unions, panchayats, can play a role in ending stubble burning. In villages, partial manual harvesting can be done in which stubble of paddy is cut close to its roots near the ground and then ploughing of field mixes the roots in the soil. Residue can be collected through baler machines to supply to the thermal plants and biomass plants.

Stubble-based industry must be started. It can be supplied to BioMass plants as Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA), a state nodal agency working towards promotion and development of renewable energy. It already uses 8.80 lakh metric tonnes of paddy stubble in its 11 biomass power plants and 3 lakh tonnes in eight projects of BIO-CNG, which is 6 per cent of the total stubble.

“Most importantly, the state must diversify around 1 to 1.5 million hectares of area from paddy to other alternative crops which will produce less stubble which can be managed in the 15-20 days time window,” said renowned economist Sardara Singh Johal, who has been advocating for diversification since 1986.

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