No respite from crop stubble burning in Punjab

High investment costs and subsidy release delays deter farmers from buying Happy Seeder and S-SMS machines.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Updated: July 12, 2018 12:05:46 am
No respite from crop stubble burning in Punjab Farmers and agriculture department officials watching wheat being planted on a field with paddy stubble using Happy Seeder. (Express photo by Anju Agnihotri Chaba)

In 2016, the Punjab government sought Central assistance of Rs 1,109 crore to enable farmers in the state purchase subsidised machinery for managing left-over paddy stubble from combine harvesting, without resorting to burning it in their fields.

That demand has since been met, with New Delhi approving Rs 665 crore for the purpose in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Out of the total amount, Rs 269 crore was released ahead of the current paddy planting season, to bring about a noticeable reduction in the incidence of burning this time round itself. Punjab farmers produce an estimated 22-23 million tonnes (mt) of paddy straw, of which nearly 19 mt is burnt — most of it within a narrow time frame from roughly mid-October to November 10.

But despite the Central grants coming in time and agri-machinery makers, too, showing readiness to supply, the response from farmers isn’t as encouraging. The state government has targeted supply of 9,900 ‘Happy Seeders’ — in addition to the 1,100 or so already deployed in fields — and 6,000 Super-Straw Management Systems (S-SMS) this season.

Happy Seeder is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts the standing paddy stubble, drills the seeds of the succeeding wheat crop into the bare soil, and deposits the straw over the sown area as a mulch cover. The S-SMS is an attachment that can be fitted into a combine harvester. It basically ensures that any loose straw thrown by the combine also gets cut and spread evenly on the field. The two machines not only dispense with the need to burn paddy residue, but allow wheat to be planted even on fields containing straw.

However, as against the targeted 9,900 Happy Seeders (costing about Rs 1.51 lakh), the Punjab government has so far received only 7,013 applications — 3,270 from individual farmers, 1,030 from farmer producer groups (FPG) and private custom-hiring centres (CHC), and the rest from cooperatives. This, despite a 50 per cent subsidy on individual farmer purchases (it is 80 per cent for FPGs/CHCs) and the last date for receiving applications being extended from June 15 to July 15. The response is even worse for S-SMS. These attachments, costing Rs 1.12 lakh, are already there in 2,000 out of the 8,000-odd combines. The target was to cover the remaining 6,000 in this season, whereas the applications received have been just 1,055.

“I have been using both Happy Seeder and S-SMS for the last two years. If I use an ordinary combine and burn the left-over straw, the cost is about Rs 1,200 per acre. But I would have to also spend another Rs 2,000 on field preparation for wheat sowing through two rounds of rotavator/disc harrow operations. The harvesting expense using a combine fitted with S-SMS is higher at Rs 1,500 per acre and an equal amount has to be spent on sowing with Happy Seeder. But I still save Rs 200 per acre and, moreover, the 7-10 days time between harvesting paddy and planting wheat. Here, I can do both on the same day,” points out Gurdip Singh, who farms 40 acres at Chak Kalan village of Ludhiana district.

But despite these clear advantages, what explains the lackluster response? The main reasons are the initial investment costs and farmers not being confident of receiving the promised subsidy.

Jagtar Singh and Raghbir Singh, farmers-cum-combine operators from Kanoi village in Sangrur district, spent Rs 1.4 lakh each on S-SMS fitments last year. They haven’t until now received the state government’s subsidy of Rs 50,000. Their fellow-villager Jagdeep Singh had to wait for almost a year to get the Rs 44,000 subsidy on a Happy Seeder he bought for Rs 1.53 lakh, inclusive of a 12 per cent goods and services tax component.

“Farmers are hesitant to invest, as most of them cannot afford to spend the money upfront and wait for the subsidy from the government. They would rather continue to burn the stubble. The government should encourage cooperatives and FPGs/CHCs, not individual farmers, to buy these machines,” notes Satnam Singh, an 18-acre farmer who also runs a ‘farm machinery bank’ at Rajjian village in Amritsar district’s Ajnala tehsil.

Jasbir Singh Bains, director of Punjab’s agriculture department, concurs with this view. “We are encouraging all the 3,500 primary agricultural cooperative societies in the state, apart from FPG/CHCs, to buy these implements and make them available to farmers on a custom hiring model. That is also the reason why we are providing a higher subsidy of 80 per cent on group purchases,” he states.

A single Happy Seeder can sow wheat on 150-160 acres during a season of 20-25 days. Punjab alone needs 25,000-30,000 such machines. “We have asked buyers, be it farmers or groups, to place orders to manufacturers by July 15. We are open to giving the subsidy either to the buyers or manufacturers. But no combine harvester will be allowed to run this season without an S-SMS attachment,” says Manmohan Kalia, officiating joint director (agriculture engineering) in the Punjab government.

Punjab is offering subsidy on not just Happy Seeder and S-SMS, but also on four other implements — chopper (costing Rs 2.8 lakh), mulcher (Rs 1.57 lakh), cutter-cum-slasher (Rs 90,000) and hydraulically reversible mould board plough (Rs 1.79 lakh) – that are required if farmers plant potato or vegetables, instead of wheat, after paddy. The combined cost of all six stubble management machines is almost Rs 9.7 lakh, which, after the 80 per cent subsidy, comes down to slightly over Rs 1.9 lakh.

“We can supply all these implements and have promised the state government on this. Our only condition is that the orders must be placed not later than this month. The subsidy applications to the government may have come, but we have not received any orders from farmers, FPGs or cooperatives,” claims Baldev Singh, CEO of the Ludhiana-based Amar Agricultural Implements Works and chairman of the All-India Agricultural Machinery Manufacturers Association.

Farm leaders, on the other hand, are demanding that Punjab farmers be given compensation at the rate of Rs 200 per quintal of paddy (over and above the minimum support price of Rs 1,770) for management of straw. “If farmers get this compensation, we will guarantee that not a single straw will be burnt. Punjab does not need any more agri-machinery, as we have enough labour to clear all paddy stubble,” asserts Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union’s Dakunda faction.

Interestingly, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh is also learnt to have written to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking a special “paddy straw management compensation” of Rs 100 per quintal for paddy to help farmers till Happy Seeder and S-SMS machines are fully deployed in fields.

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