To know why the National Capital is choking, visit Sangrur in Punjab — the district that recorded the highest number of farm fires in a single day this year.
One of Punjab’s largest paddy producing districts, Sangrur witnessed 2,157 farm fires from September 23 to October 30, the third highest district-wise figure in the state. Compared to the same period last year, the fire counts in this district increased by 943. In a single day, October 30, it recorded 550 such fires.
And yet, the mood on the ground is a mix of denial and helplessness.
The state government maintains that farm fires in Punjab contribute barely over 15 per cent to Delhi’s pollution. But officials in Sangrur admit there are problems, including the slow switch to “expensive” mechanical alternatives to stubble burning.
“Farmers who buy machines such as Happy Seeder and Super Seeder will also have to buy a tractor of over 55 HP, which costs around Rs 4 lakh. Small and medium scale farmers would not be able to spend that much money,” a district agriculture officer said.
Nothing illustrates this dilemma better than the thick smog that hovered over Sangrur town and nearby villages Saturday.
In Bhadalwad village, Gurtej Singh was setting fire to his field covered with chopped paddy straws. A small-scale farmer, 55-year-old Singh has taken a 10-acre farm on lease on which he cultivates paddy. “There are times when I don’t break even after selling the crop because I have to make a lot of investment in growing paddy; the cost of fertilisers and pesticides has increased a lot over the years. If I am not able to make enough money out of this, then how will I buy the machines?” Singh said.
One solution could be an incentive, Singh said, given by the state government to farmers who do not burn stubble. “If I get this incentive, then I can hire a machine on rent such as a Super Seeder to clear the field and sow the crop,” he said.
Officials estimate that Punjab produces around 20 million metric tonnes of paddy straw annually — last year, Sangrur produced over 20 lakh metric tonnes. Of Sangrur’s 3.16 lakh hectares of farm land, paddy cultivation is done in around 2.8 lakh hectares.
According to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, his government has initiated action against 2,923 farmers in 20,729 cases of stubble burning till November 1 in the state.
In Sangrur, the administration issued 353 challans totalling over Rs 8.80 lakh till November 1. The administration is also levying a fine of Rs 2 lakh per owner of Combine Harvester machines that do not have the Super-SMS (Straw Management System), which cuts and spreads the paddy straw in the field, making it easier to plant seeds through Happy Seeder and Super Seeder.
A Happy Seeder machine costs around Rs 1.7 lakh on which farmers get 50 per cent subsidy and farmers’ groups 80 per cent. Over 1,200 Happy Seeder machines are on the ground in Sangrur but farmers have not responded enthusiastically. They say it plants seeds among standing stubble, which “draws in pests… and does not give the field a clean look”.
The Super Seeder, introduced in the market this year, has seen more interest because it cuts and mixes the paddy straws in the field while also planting seeds simultaneously. It costs around Rs 2.10 lakh, on which farmers and groups get 50 per cent subsidy.
However, the Sangrur administration was caught in a bind Saturday when they found that only 71 subsidies had been sanctioned against 277 applications from farmers and groups that had already bought the Super Seeder this season.
The solution: A lucky draw at the district agriculture office. “We only have funds for 71 machines so far. Those who have not got the subsidy will have to wait,” an official said.
Farmers who did not get the subsidy say they feel cheated. But even some of those who received the subsidy said they have to burn their fields partially for the machine to function properly. “Around 15 per cent of the field has to be burned, otherwise the machine won’t run smoothly,” said Dalveer Singh, 30, a farmer.
Officials also say many farmers have been engaging in partial stubble burning as it reduces the moisture in paddy straw, making it easier to cut through. “The moisture in the straw sometimes gets stuck in the machines… This can be overcome if people learn how to operate the machines properly… what should be the moisture content in the field before their use, the speed at which the tractor should be run,” a district agriculture officer said.
Satwant Singh Gill, 54, a farmer from Bhadalwad, hired a Super Seeder Saturday to clear his partially burned stubble stock. “If the result is good, I will invest in one. We do not want to burn the stubble but we have no other option,” Gill said.
One of the reasons for the slow intake of machines are their high cost, farmers say, because the subsidies are provided for only a few government-prescribed manufacturers.
“If the market is opened up to more companies and farmers are given freedom to buy machines from any firm they want, that would create more competition and result in lowering of prices,” said Harwinder Singh, 51, another farmer from Bhadalwad.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Punjab Agriculture Secretary K S Pannu said the problem could be solved if the Centre gives an incentive to farmers, of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy, for not burning the crop residue. “At least 60 per cent of farmers have already adopted the new technologies and every year it is improving. In the next 3-4 years, all farmers will shift to the new technology,” he said.