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Punjab: As stubble fires flare from 40% to 68% in 4 years, experts point to benefits of ex-situ management

With their efforts primarily focused on in-situ management (see box), experts believe it’s now time for the government to expand ex-situ management in a bigger way.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Updated: December 2, 2020 10:01:00 am
punjab, punjab stubble burning, punjab farm fires, indian express

Years of work by various government agencies and distribution of nearly 74,000 stubble management machines seem to have come to naught as farm fires in Punjab this year have increased from 40 per cent to 68 per cent in the last four years (since 2017). With their efforts primarily focused on in-situ management (see box), experts believe it’s now time for the government to expand ex-situ management in a bigger way.

Several of the state government’s departments including agriculture, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) and the district authorities could not check stubble burning under the Centre-supported scheme for in-situ management of crop residue (to incorporate stubble in soil with the help of stubble management machinery), a scheme to subsidise farm machinery. Experts say that industry under ‘start-up’ concept for ex-situ management can help in a big way.

Jagsir Singh, a farmer from Adhnian village in Muktsar Sahib district, said he has been selling stubble for the past six years to plants where it is used as raw material and gets Rs 20-150 per quintal, depending on the distance the stubble is being transported.

Jagsir, who also owned two baler machines (which collects already cut stubble into compact bales), said that a two-year-old bio energy company called Verve Renewables, based in Ambala, had also contacted him to buy his crop residue. “This season I supplied around 1500 tonnes of stubble of various farmers who opted for ex-situ management to Naraingarh Sugar Mill in Ambala district (Haryana) through this company,” he said.

He also said that farmers associated with them for ex-situ management of stubble are happier. “Some of them even tell us not to pay them but just clear the stubble from their fields,” he added.

“One baler gives employment to around 100 people as around 20 tractor trolleys are needed with one baler in one season to transport stubble to the company designated dumps and then 3-4 labourers are required with every trolley,” said Jagsir.

Lakhwinder Singh, another farmer from Chhajal Majra village in Naraingarh, owns 42 acres of land and four baler machines. He collects stubble from 1,000 acres of land of various farmers to supply to the Naraingarh Sugar Mill through Verve Renewables.

“This is the best method and the farmer gets a clear field. But we need more and more industry to utilise this stubble,” said Lakhwinder.

Suvrat Khanna, co-founder and CEO, Verve Renewables, told The Indian Express that they had collected 75,000 metric tonnes of paddy (non-Basmati) stubble in its first year of operation in 2019 and aim to collect 1.50 lakh metric tonnes in the current season, out of which around one lakh tonnes has already been collected and is being supplied to the 25 MW co-generation power plant at Naraingarh Sugar Mills to fire in their boilers. He said the same can be replicated in Punjab where there are 16 sugar mills and several of them have power generation plants which can be upgraded to utilise paddy straw, which is available in abundance in the state.

“We have engaged mostly small and marginal farmers who cannot afford to manage their stubble and give a call to all those who want to sell their stubble for ex-situ management,” said Khanna.

He added, “Now hundreds of farmers from Punjab and Haryana are working with us and earning compensation for it and are even thinking burning stubble.”

Khanna said that their aim is to establish one platform mechanism for procurement, processing, and provision of biomass or agro waste for the end-user when the problem of stubble burning is a serious issue across northern India, creating severe environmental complications and health hazards.

“We are also working closely with Punjab and Haryana governments in their endeavour to solve the problem of stubble burning to get more co-generation plants and other captive large industrial plants on board and envisions to collect 1 million tonnes of agro stubble by 2024 to generate approximately 2,50,000 MW of power,” he said.

Officials speak

A senior officer in the Punjab agriculture department said, “Currently only 15-20 per cent stubble is being managed through ex-situ methods while remaining 80-85 per cent is left to be managed through in-situ and majority of which is burnt. The management ratio with both methods should be 50:50 to control the burning. Now ex-situ must be expanded in a bigger way.”

Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA) Director M P Singh said there is a huge scope for the paddy, corn, cane stubble-based industry in Punjab and the educated youth can start such projects under the ‘start-up’ concept with the help of both central and state governments.

Experts said incorporating stubble in soil is also beneficial but farmers need little extra expenditure which small and marginal farmers cannot afford but big and medium farmers can, and the government should prepare a road map for both in-situ and ex-situ.

“We are ready to give our stubble to any company if we get our fields cleared,” said Jagmohan Singh, general secretary, Bharti Kisan Union (BKU) Dakaunda, adding that farmers are not happy with burning their fields but left with no option when they cannot afford costly management of stubble.

“Despite dispersing 74,000 subsidised machines, ex-Situ management can be a biggest attraction among farmers across the state if it is done timely,” said another farmer leader, Jagsir Singh, of BKU Ugrahan.

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