Punjab farmers have sown 4.50 lakh hectares (lh) wheat area this time using Happy Seeders. This is nearly 13% of the total 35.08 lh planted under the rabi cereal crop in the state. Not bad, it would seem, for a relatively new technology, which allows wheat to be directly seeded in combine-harvested paddy fields without any need to burn leftover stubble or loose straw that is a source of environmental pollution.
But the 4.50 lh is below the 5.49 lh coverage, amounting to almost 16% of the total wheat area of 35.20 lh, that was achieved in the 2018-19 rabi season. This, despite the population of Happy Seeder machines in Punjab going up from around 9,000 to 16,000 in the current season. A single tractor-mounted Happy Seeder — which cuts and lifts the standing stubble, drills the wheat seeds into bare soil, and deposits the residue over the sown area as a mulch cover — can work 7-8 acres daily for 25-30 days during the rabi planting season. The 16,000 machines theoretically, then, should have covered 28-38 lakh acres or 11-15 lh, whereas they managed to do just about a third of that.
“We had targeted at least 7-8 lh, but there were political and weather-related issues that came in the way,” said a senior Punjab agriculture department official. The first had to do with by-polls to four Assembly seats, which got completed on October 24. “Given the electoral atmosphere, the administration was naturally lax in taking any tough action against farmers. Enforcement measures began in right earnest, if any, only after Diwali on October 27. Out of the total 52,942 cases of paddy stubble burning recorded this time, 9,796 or 18.5% were between September 23 and October 26,” he pointed out.
The second issue was the prolonged monsoon rain, which delayed the harvesting of paddy by up to a month. “The bulk of harvesting happened after Diwali, which also left little time for sowing of wheat. Ideally, sowing should be done before November 15 or, at the latest, November 30. But the intermittent rains even during November meant that not only did we have late paddy harvesting, the fields were also too wet. Most farmers, therefore, opted to burn their fields in order to be able to sow wheat,” the official added.
The Happy Seeder can be used only when farmers don’t burn the stubble from the previous crop. “But you cannot run the machine properly if there is excess soil moisture due to rains,” noted Kulbir Singh Garcha, a farmer from Shadipur village in Jalandhar district’s Phillaur tehsil, who owns two Happy Seeders. “I could cover only 140 acres, including the 40 acres of my own field. And I must admit that the crop stand establishment (necessary for maximum and uniform germination) has not been good and my yields will be lower,” he stated, while predicting that many farmers who used Happy Seeders will go back to burning their crop stubble in the next season. His advice: “The government should not hurry in pushing a technology, which may not work in weather conditions like the one during this time. They should also educate farmers how to use this machine well rather than ensuring business for manufacturers”.
In the past two years, the Punjab government had subsidised sale of some 50,000 machines that can “manage” field stubble resulting from combine harvesters, which cut the standing crop about 20 inches above the ground. The 50,000 machines include 16,000 Happy Seeders, 6,000 Super-Straw Management System attachments (fitted on the combines to ensure that any loose straw also gets cut and evenly spread on the field) and 34,000 choppers, mulchers, cutters, reversible mould board ploughs and rotavators (which basically crush the stubble/straw into fine pieces and incorporate these into the soil). The machines have been supplied with government subsidy of 50% for individual farmers and 80% in case of purchase by farmer groups or private custom hiring centres.
But all this subsidy and wide publicity for so-called stubble management machines does not seem to yield the desired results. According to data from the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre at Ludhiana, burning of stubble was recorded on 17.93 lh or 61% of the state’s paddy area in 2019. This was higher than the previous year’s 17.81 lh and 57%, although an improvement over the 19.78 lh of 2017 and 21.34 lh of 2016, when there were hardly 1,000 Happy seeders across Punjab.
Simply put, the technology is spreading and burning has come down, though not at the rates that the authorities or the larger public would desire. Sutantar Kumar Airi, the director of agriculture in Punjab, estimates the total area under direct seeding of wheat (without resort to burning of paddy residues) to have touched 5 lh in 2019-20, of which 4.5 lh was through Happy Seeders and 50,000 hectares using the other machines.
“If you give an extra minimum support price of Rs 100 per quintal (over the current Rs 1,835/quintal for paddy), farmers will harvest the stubble from the entire 35 lh by employing manual labour. There will be no pollution either from burning straw or extra diesel used in the new machinery,” claimed Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda faction).