Every year, around this time, vast tracts of agricultural land in Punjab — and to an extent, Haryana — are lit up by thousands of fires, as farmers try to get rid of paddy stalks that remain after the harvest. The problem is linked to the widespread use of combine harvesters in Punjab, which leave 12-14 inch stalks — often described as “stubble” — after the crop has been cut. The gap between successive crops in this region is no more than 15-20 days, and as farmers hurry to prepare the ground, they set their fields ablaze, sending up thick smoke that spreads a polluting shroud over a large swathe of northwestern India, including the national capital. Scientific studies have linked fine particulate matter in the haze to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and other, larger climate change consequences.
Government attempts to dissuade the farmers have largely failed. A small beginning, though, has been made at exploring other, less environmentally damaging ways to get rid of the stubble — which also have powerful added advantages. Instead of burning the paddy stalks, here’s what some farmers are doing.
Punjab has seven biomass-run power generating units, which use about 1 million tonnes of the 15 million tonnes of paddy stubble the state produces annually to generate 65 MW of power, according to the Punjab Energy Development Authority (PEDA). The plants, which are run by private entities with PEDA acting as facilitator, also use cotton stalks as fuel, joint director of the Authority, M P Singh, said.
The process of setting up the biomass plants started in 2005, and the last plant was opened in 2013 in Mansa. Applications have been invited up to November 16 to set up new plants with a combined capacity of 200 MW, said Singh.
He added, however, that it was not possible for the government to set up enough plants that could consume all the paddy stubble generated in the state, and “farmers need to learn that they should not burn the stubble, and can instead plough it back into the land”.
Channu-based farmer Bhupinder Singh said, “Most people in our village don’t burn the stubble. We give it to the power plant instead. You can see in the pictures released by NASA that the Malwa region has less smog than the rest of Punjab.
Gurdeep Singh of village Bukan Khanwala in Ferozepur district uses paddy stubble in a cardboard factory that he has set up on his land. Last season, Singh collected stubble from 400 acres; this year, he has crossed 500 acres. Singh is also the local environmental activist, who spends considerable time telling farmers of the damage caused by burning stubble, as well as the gains from changing the habit.
Gurdeep started his cardboard factory nine years ago, using stubble collected from 24 acres of land. “We met Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal two years ago, and he said he would visit our fields and ask officers to follow up on our initiative. But forget about incentivising our efforts, the government hasn’t even formally appreciated our work so far,” he said.
A similar unit was set up by Mintu Duggal in the Guru-Har-Sahai area five years before Gurdeep. Sukhdev Singh of the same district followed Gurdeep with his own unit. Duggal and Sukhdev, who collect stubble from 400 acres and 350 acres respectively, however, complain of resistance from farmers and lack of support from the government. The trio supplies cardboard to garment units in Amritsar, where it is used as packaging material.
The Punjab agriculture department has received over 500 applications for the purchase of chopper-and-shredder machines that chop stubble finely, and which can then be used as manure in the fields. The government has offered a subsidy of Rs 1 lakh on the machines, which cost a little over Rs 2 lakh each.
“Last year, over 50 machines were purchased by farmers. This year, we have received over 500 applications,” Dr D R Kataria, joint director, agriculture and farm machinery, said. The baler machines used earlier by farmers to shave off harvested stalks are too expensive for individual farmers to afford, and are also not sufficiently effective.
“If you were to grow potaotes or any other vegetable in the same field after harvesting paddy, there would always be some residue in the soil, which is not ideal for the next crop,” Dr Kataria said. The chopper-and-shredder cuts the stubble small enough to be readily absorbed as manure.
“Using this machine, farmers can help prevent the loss of 1 lakh tonnes of nitrogen, 0.5 lakh tonnes of phosphorus and 2.5 lakh tonnes of potash over the 27 lakh hectares in which paddy is grown in the state,” Dr Naresh Gulati of the Technology Management Agency said.