Urban residents and the courts may fulminate, but farmers in Punjab and Haryana aren’t anytime soon going to stop burning crop residue from the harvesting and threshing of paddy using combines.
They may well choose to harvest paddy with combines that have Super Straw Management System (SSMS) attachments and sow the succeeding wheat crop by Happy Seeders. However, the adoption of these technologies will probably be at a rate they, not others, would decide. And that, in turn, is a function of cost-benefit ratio as perceived by them.
Jagtar Singh Toor grows paddy and wheat on 15 acres of land in Kanoi village of Sangrur district and tehsil. Till 2016, this farmer was burning the entire loose straw and leftover stubble from his combine-harvested paddy crop.
In 2017, Kanoi decided to harvest 8 acres with an SSMS-fitted combine (which ensures that any loose straw thrown also gets cut and evenly spread on the field) and plant wheat using a Happy Seeder (which cuts and lifts the standing stubble, drills the seeds into the bare soil, and deposits the residue over the sown area as a mulch cover).
“I found that the wheat yield from the 8 acres, at 22-25 quintals/acre, was more or less the same as from my remaining 7 acres. In 2018, I increased my SSMS and Happy Seeder area to 12 acres and again observed no yield decline. This year, I have sown wheat on my entire 15 acres with Happy Seeder and not burnt any stubble,” says the 50-year-old.
But yield not falling isn’t the sole reason why Toor decided to use an SSMS-fitted harvester combine and Happy Seeder, which he hired from Jagdeep Singh Dhillon, a fellow farmer owning 39 acres in the same village. Equally, if not more, important was cost savings that he experienced firsthand.
In the normal post-combine harvesting route, the standing paddy stubble, which is around 20 inches above the ground, has to first be cut to 8-10 inches using a reaper. This operation, without which burning is not possible, costs Rs 500 per acre. Burning itself, involving two labourers, requires spending another Rs 500. After the stubble is cleared, two rounds of ploughing (turning up the earth) followed by planking (to smoothen the soil surface) are necessary. Each ploughing using disc harrow costs Rs 600 per acre, with planking also entailing the same expense. Only on this fine-prepared seedbed can wheat sowing by seed drill machine take place, again at Rs 600/acre.
“In all, the cost, from paddy stubble burning to wheat sowing, would come to Rs 4,000 per acre. As against this, the hiring charge for a Happy Seeder is just Rs 1,500-1,800 per acre. The cost of running a combine with SSMS attachment is Rs 1,800-2,000 per acre, which is Rs 400-600 more than for normal combine. But even after accounting for the extra Rs 400-600, the total expense is only Rs 1,900-2,400 per acre, compared to the earlier Rs 4,000. The health of my soil also improves, as the stubble, instead of being burnt, adds to the organic matter,” states Toor.
But it has taken some time for a farmer like him to arrive at this conclusion. The fact that there was somebody like Dhillon — a progressive farmer and also owner of an SSMS-fitted combine and Happy Seeder machine — to encourage him to try out the new technology further helped. Thanks to Dhillon’s efforts, over 90% of Kanoi village’s 1,021 acres area under paddy this time witnessed no stubble burning at all.
The above process — of farmers first “seeing” results on the fields of others and then trying out it themselves in part of their holdings — cannot be achieved overnight through government fiat or court order. One needs to simply consider the magnitudes: Punjab alone grows roughly 60 lakh acres of non-basmati paddy that is combine-harvested and generates 15 million tonnes of stubble. The state’s estimated 14,000 Happy Seeders, even if they sow 7-8 acres daily for 25-30 days, can at best cover 24-34 lakh acres.
Stubble burning will stop — because farmers would, sooner or later, find it economically compelling not to set their fields on fire. The Punjab farmer will take to SSMS-Happy Seeder technology, just as he did with combine harvesters from the late 1970s. That one, too, took some time. And nobody forced him.