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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Crop residue burning: Why Happy Seeder isn’t a happy proposition

Stubble management machines, unlike tractors, lie idle for most time, making it an unviable investment

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Updated: October 31, 2019 5:11:57 am
Farmer Palwinder Singh from Sahari village in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district sowing wheat using a Happy Seeder (Anju Agnihotri Chaba/Praveen Khanna)

“The machine works well, no doubt. But what’s the use if it runs for only 25-30 days and has to be parked in my shed for the rest of the year?” asks Palwinder Singh.

The 50-year-old from Sahari village in Gurdaspur district and tehsil has not one, but three Happy Seeders. The first of these tractor-mounted machines — which allows planting of wheat without the need for burning leftover straw from the previous paddy crop — he purchased in September 2017 for Rs 1.45 lakh and got 50% of that cost reimbursed by the Punjab government. Last month, he bought two more at Rs 1.70 lakh each as a member of a 15-farmer producer group, eligible for a higher 80% subsidy.

For farmers like him, who have invested in Happy Seeders, the issue is not about technology. The machine basically cuts and lifts the standing stubble from the combine-harvested paddy, drills the seeds of the succeeding wheat crop into the bare soil, and deposits the straw over the sown area as a mulch cover. Along with a Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS) attachment fitted into the combine — which ensures that any loose straw thrown also gets cut and spread evenly on the field — it is an effective solution to the problem of pollution caused by paddy stubble burning during this time of the year.

Paddy stubble being burnt at a field in Haryana. (Anju Agnihotri Chaba/Praveen Khanna)

But the Happy Seeder can be a worthwhile investment “only if it covers 200 acres, even if for just 25-30 days from October 25 to November 25,” says Palwinder Singh. That is the maximum sowing window for wheat, though planting ideally should not be before November 1 and not later than November 15. Last year, his machine ran only on about 150 acres and he had to spend Rs 10,000 on servicing to make it field-ready after an extended period of lying idle. The 150 acres included his 21 acres and the fields of other farmers, who were charged Rs 1,500 per acre.

For the current wheat sowing season, Palwinder plans to do 700 acres with all the three Happy Seeders. He has already covered 65 acres in the four days from October 27, but isn’t very hopeful of meeting the target. He blames it on the Punjab government and “irresponsible” farmers: “How will my machine be viable if farmers continue to set their fields on fire and the government does nothing about it?”

Latest data from the Ludhiana-based Punjab Remote Sensing Centre shows 19,869 cases of field stubble burning from September 23 to October 30 this year, which is more than the 15,028 recorded during the same period of 2018. “The authorities did not act till now, as they were more worried about the by-elections to four Assembly constituencies,” alleges Palwinder. The first case of stubble burning this time was, in fact, lodged on October 24, three days after polling got over. It was against a farmer Gurjant Singh from Kokri Kalan village of Moga district and tehsil, who had apparently set fire to his three-acre field after using a paddy straw reaper.

The Punjab government has been sanctioned Rs 665 crore under a Central scheme for “In-Situ Management of Crop Residue”. Under it, some 50,000 machines — 28,000 in 2018-19 and the balance this year — have been distributed in the state through approved manufacturers, with 50% subsidy being given on individual farmer purchases and 80% if bought by producer groups, cooperative societies or custom hiring centres. Palwinder Singh’s producers’ organisation has bought machinery worth nearly Rs 27 lakh: 11 Happy Seeders, two reversible mould-board ploughs (Rs 1.5 lakh each), two rotavators (Rs 1 lakh each), three cutters (Rs 50,000 each) and three zero-till drills (Rs 50,000 each). The total cost, net of the 80% subsidy, was about Rs 5.3 lakh

The 50,000 machines sold in the last two years include around 14,000 Happy Seeders, 6,000 S-SMS, 8,000 choppers/shredders/mulchers, 7,000 rotavators, 4,000 reversible ploughs, 5,500 zero-till drills and 350 balers. While Happy Seeder and S-SMS enable direct wheat seeding, the others are used for cutting the paddy stubble into small pieces (chopper/shredder) and incorporating them into the field through deep tillage (rotavator/reversible plough), or harvesting and compressing into compact bundles (baler).

“I bought this only because of the subsidy. A tractor costs Rs 6 lakh, but it can be employed throughout the year for both farm and non-farm operations. Why will anybody spend Rs 1.7 lakh on a machine that is used for just 25 days to sow one crop?” points out Gaurav Kumar (34). This 16-acre farmer from Jhaloya village in Pathankot district and tehsil is awaiting transfer of the 50% subsidy on purchase of a Happy Seeder to his bank account. Like Palwinder, he hopes to make money from running it on other farmers’ fields and is also disappointed at the government’s “inaction” in preventing stubble burning.

Satnam Singh, who cultivates 18 acres at Rajjian village in Amritsar’s Ajnala tehsil, runs a custom hiring centre that houses two Happy Seeders, an S-SMS fitted combine, two rotavators, one reversible plough, one chopper and one mulcher. The total investment in these machines — most of them purchased before the launch of the Centre’s 2018 In-Situ scheme — is over Rs 25 lakh, against which he has received Rs 10 lakh subsidy. “The government has given us the subsidy. Now, it should ensure strict implementation of the law against stubble burning. There is also a problem today that if wheat yields turn out low, farmers will blame it on Happy Seeder, when the real reason lies elsewhere,” he notes.

Punjab farmers grow paddy and wheat on roughly 75 lakh acres. The 14,000 Happy Seeders already distributed, if they sow 7-8 acres each daily for 25-30 days, will cover only 24.5-33.6 lakh acres. The 6,000 combines fitted with S-SMS can, likewise, harvest 18-22.5 lakh acres at the rate of 12-15 acres daily over 25 days. Simply put, the existing machines — which incidentally attract 12% goods and services tax — are hardly enough to take care of the stubble burning problem.

So, does it mean flooding the state with more machines? These ultimately run on diesel, which then translates into the solution becoming a no less “burning problem”? Farmer leader and general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union’s Dakunda faction, Jagmohan Singh, proposes an alternative solution: “Give farmers a Rs 100-200 per quintal bonus on paddy and make it conditional on their not burning even a single straw. They will manage the stubble either through machines or going back to manual harvesting”.

Meanwhile, there is a somewhat heartening statistic. In 2018, Punjab recorded 49,987 paddy stubble burning incidents, higher than the 43,660 for the preceding year. Yet, the actual area set under fire, according to the Punjab Pollution Control Board, fell from 18 lakh hectares to 14.05 lakh hectares. That holds out some hope for the current year as well. Even if the number of fires is up, their intensity is what probably matters more.

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