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Behind Punjab’s burning problem, no takers for machines (on hire) to manage stubble

Most of the CHCs that the Indian Express contacted, claimed that their machines were not utilised between 5 to 10 per cent of the expected target as farmers preferred to set their fields on fire.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | November 30, 2020 10:03:30 am
Experts expressed surprise over the rise in farm fires in Punjab, considering the fact that state had less stubble to manage this year — production of stubble has gone down by 15 per cent — and enough resources (74,000 stubble management machines this time) in hand. (Express Photo: Gurmeet Singh)

Balwinder Singh and 10 other farmers pooled in Rs 6 lakh to purchase farm machinery for stubble management, including Happy Seeder, Chopper and Zero Till Drill, under the government’s subsidized in-situ scheme. The group of farmers opened a Custom Hiring Centre (CHC) for these farm at village Dudhrai in Amritsar hoping to make good on their investment amid pressure on farmers to manage the paddy stubble instead of burning them.

With the paddy harvesting season at its fag end, the machines bought by the group has been used on only 60 acres of land, including 25 acres each of Balwinder and another farmer in the group. The machines were hired by some farmers in the village to manage stubble for 10 acres.

Staring at a huge financial loss, Balwinder says that farmers are openly putting stubble to fire in their fields “and no one has stopped them”.

“What is the use of stubble management machines then? If government is selling these machines and wants the farmers to use it, then why not make them aware about their benefits,” he asked.

Avtar Singh of village Chakk Dogra, also in Amritsar, has a similar story to tell. He spent Rs 22 lakh to purchase a new combine harvester along with Super SMS attachment, which costs around Rs 1.25 lakh. “The government has made Super SMS attachment compulsory with every combine harvester. The Super SMS can be attached with some of the old combines, but mine was not one of them. I had to sell my old combine harvester for a meagre Rs 4 lakh. I was hoping to earn some money by leasing out the machine, but only five farmers of my village hired it for harvesting an acre each of paddy (non-basmati). They are yet to pay me,” said Avtar Singh

Avtar Singh said that he used to harvest paddy on around 450 acre land at the rate of Rs 1,500 per acre with his old combine till last year. “This year I used the new Super SMS combine harvester on 37 acres only, and that includes 32 acres of my family land. Farmers prefer simple harvester over this new one as it costs them Rs 400-500 extra per acre. Why did government make the Super SMS compulsory with every combine harvester when it cannot convince farmers to get their crop harvested with such machinery?” he asked.

Farmers like Avtar Singh and Balwinder aren’t an exception, but a norm in Punjab where most of the CHC owners are blaming the government for the losses that they have suffered as their stubble management machines remain highly under-utilised.

This year, Punjab Agriculture department had claimed to open 11,000 new CHCs, which were in addition to 8,000 that had been set up till last year. The CHCs lease out the machines to farmers on nominal prices to manage the stubble and to stop them from burning it.

Most of the CHCs that the Indian Express contacted, claimed that their machines were not utilised between 5 to 10 per cent of the expected target as farmers preferred to set their fields on fire.

According to data released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in a report on ‘Active Fire Events’, there were 76,582 incidents of stubble burning in Punjab between September 21 and November 23, nearly 25,000 more than such events during the same period in 2019.

The Centre blamed the increase in stubble burning in Punjab on “the lack of ground-level implementation of Centre-supported schemes,’’ which include ‘Promotion of Agricultural Mechanization for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue’, a scheme to subsidise farm machinery.

Experts expressed surprise over the rise in farm fires in Punjab, considering the fact that state had less stubble to manage this year — production of stubble has gone down by 15 per cent — and enough resources (74,000 stubble management machines this time) in hand.

Satnam Singh Rajjian of Rajjian Village in Amritsar’s Ajnala sub-divison, who has been running a CHC for past several years explains why.

“Majority of our farmers are uneducated and no one made them aware about the benefit of these machines at ground level. Only a handful of farmers are active on WhatsApp groups, social media sites and Internet. A majority of the farmers need to be made physically aware about the benefits of in-situ or ex-situ management of the stubble by organizing aggressive campaigns at the ground or field level, not at the social media sites,” said Satnam Singh.

The farmer further said that “even those who have opened CHCs this year, burnt the stubble in their fields first and then sown wheat through Super Seeder”. He said the Super Seeder can sow wheat in the fields having standing stubble or where stubble has been burnt after harvesting.

“Even after submitting affidavits stating that they will not put their fields on fire, farmers went ahead and did it as government failed to keep a check on such developments or take action,” he added.

In October, Punjab government had told a Supreme Court-mandated pollution control authority that CHCs in the state will not charge any rental from small and marginal farmers for machinery to manage stubble. Marginal farmers are those who cultivate (as owner or tenant or share cropper) agricultural land up to 1 hectare, while small farmers are those who cultivate agricultural land more than 1 hectare and up to 2 hectares.

Rental charge for most of the machines, including happy seeder, rotavator, straw chopper and zero till drill, is between Rs 100 and Rs 200.

The Punjab government had also appointed 8,000 nodal officers in paddy growing villages to check stubble burning this season. These officers were supposed to create awareness in villages through demonstration of machines used in straw management and also work in close coordination with the revenue, rural development and panchayats and agriculture departments.

Ironically, Punjab broke the record of past four years when it comes to stubble burning.

“This is because, at the ground level we never saw any such nodal officer in our village. We were never given his or her contact number. Every time the village patwari (revenue officer at village level) got information about stubble burning in his area, he would open the government website and mention that the fire was in a residential area,” claimed a farmer in Tarn Taran’s Patti area.

Farmer Karnail Singh, a member of a CHC group in Jalandhar, blames government officials. “They are busy in selling more machines to the farmers as they get commission from the manufacturers. But they are bothered about proper utilisation of machines at the ground level,” alleged Karnail Singh.

Punjab currently has around 7,000 combine harvesters with Super SMS attachment. Experts say the machines were sufficient to harvest the entire paddy in Punjab where the harvesting seasons lasts for around two months. Around 29,000 Happy Seeder and Super Seeder machines could have covered around 90 per cent of the wheat sowing, they said.

No officer from the State Agriculture Department was ready to talk on the subject on record. An officer, on the condition of anonymity, said that due to Covid, most of the instructions were passed only on phone and physical visits were quite less due to which farmers had no fear this time and they burnt the stubble like they used to around 5-6 years back, when such fires had set alarm bells ringing everywhere.

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