“A matchbox costs just Rs 2, you know,” says Ram Pal Rana, as he collects and piles up dry straw on one side of his 3-acre paddy field at Uchana village in Haryana’s Karnal, around 130 km from Delhi. In the distance, a plume of white smoke spirals up as the crop stubble and straw on adjacent fields are set on fire.
Every October, the air quality in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana plummets as farmers set the leftover stubble and loose straw on fire after paddy is harvested using combines. And this time, too, the smoke signals from the fields are ominous
Over the last two years, the central and state governments have devised a number of measures to prevent this — from slapping fines on farmers to subsidising equipment that allow seeds of the next wheat crop to be planted with the stubble still on the fields.
However, The Indian Express travelled to villages in Haryana and Punjab, and spoke to farmers and officials in both states, to find a huge gap between government action and ground reality. Several farmers claimed they are yet to get the machines or hear from officials about the dangers of crop-stubble burning.
“It is business as usual here. No one from the government has come to us to have a conversation and understand our point of view. When we are not getting the ideal price for our crop, how can we spend thousands of rupees on hiring these machines? This is simple economics,” says Karamjit Singh, a farmer from Salaru village in Karnal, whose 20-acre farm is dotted with tell-tale black patches.
“Using a Happy Seeder or combine harvester with Super-SMS is just too costly,” he says. Karamjit is referring to the two most popular machines that eliminate the need to burn agricultural waste. Happy Seeder enables wheat to be planted on the field, while simultaneously cutting the standing stubble and spreading it over the sown seeds as mulch cover. Super-SMS is an attachment to a combine harvester, which spreads the loose straw thrown up by the machine evenly across the field, making it easier to run the Happy Seeder. Farmers have the option of hiring these on rent from collectives and private entrepreneurs who are also eligible for the subsidy on purchase.
“While a Happy Seeder costs close to Rs 1.7 lakh, the Super SMS combine attachment costs Rs 1.2 lakh. Under the new policy finalised this year, an individual farmer has to be given a subsidy of 50% for buying the machines. Custom hiring centres or farmers’ collectives of at least eight farmers, will be given a subsidy of 80 per cent for the machine,” a senior official in the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told The Indian Express.
Stubble burning is linked to the widespread use of regular combine harvesters in paddy fields, which leave 12-14 inch stalks — often described as “stubble” — after the crop has been cut. The gap between harvesting paddy and planting the succeeding wheat crop is no more than 15-20 days, and farmers prepare the ground in this short span of time by setting their fields ablaze.
“(Smoke from) stubble burning shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%. The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide also rises by 7% and 2.1%, respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems,” states the Agriculture Ministry’s guidelines.
Last year, Haryana officials say, the state government slapped fines ranging from Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000 in 3,300 cases of farmers burning waste. In Punjab, officials say 43,814 cases were recorded. This season, Haryana has lodged 40 cases where fines were imposed while Punjab has issued fines in 399 cases.
In Patiala’s Sobha village, Sohan Singh says he set the agricultural waste on his 2-acre field on fire as evening descended last week. “We did not want to attract any attention during the day as we could have been fined. We are small farmers. Hiring a machine for a day and using diesel, which has become very expensive, does not make sense for us. We hardly get by on the money that we make from selling the harvest,” he says. “I have not heard about any government decision to give subsidies to buy these machines,” says Sohan.
Speaking to The Indian Express, K S Pannu, chairperson of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, says the state has distributed 14,000 of the 24,000 machines to be given on subsidy this year. “The rest of them will be distributed within two weeks,” he says.
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The Haryana government claims that the state has met its target in distributing 900 machines. “We have carried out awareness exercises and spoken to farmers on the ground. We are optimistic and the number of fines issued so far is less. We are expecting the instances to come down this season even after October 15, when the harvest is complete,” says S Narayanan, member secretary, Haryana Pollution Control Board. “The number of fires at the beginning of the season are lower so far,” he says.
Back in Karnal, Rana says he has to work quickly — the wheat crop has to be planted in the next 20 days and the stubble and straw have to be disposed. “I will not burn the waste. But I can’t speak for the others in my village. Yes, a lot has changed over the last 2-3 years. The government has issued fines, has spread awareness and is also helping villages come together and buy the machines. But even if you only rent a machine, it costs money to get fuel. Isn’t is just easier to set it all on fire?” the farmer asks.