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Smoke and mirrors: Punjab, Haryana farmers say why they burn stubble

Rising air pollution in Delhi has once again turned the heat on paddy farmers in Punjab and Haryana, who burn stubble in their fields around this time to ready it for the next wheat crop. The Indian Express tells their side of the story

Written by Divya Goyal , Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: November 14, 2017 10:38:29 am
Delhi air pollution, Crop burning, Stubble burning, Punjab crop burning, Haryana crop burning,  At Kohand village, Karnal, which has the highest stubble burning figures in Haryana, Sonu, 28, sets his fields on fire (Express Photo/Praveen Khana)


Paraali, that is what the 50-60 cm stubble left after farmers have used combine harvesters on their fields of paddy is called here. Simranjeet Singh, 27, understands the noise the paraali has been making, all the way in Delhi, and all the way up, where NASA satellites are now trailing its spread in fascinating detail.

In his village of Qadian in Ludhiana, paraali on the entire 600 acres of area under paddy has been set on fire this year. On his 23-acre farm, Simranjeet is himself supervising labourers involved in the work.

Coughing, one of them, Golu, says it’s “nothing”. “It is my routine in paddy season every year.”

Simranjeet, who is within earshot, butts in. “Do you think I am an uneducated farmer? That I do not know how hazardous it is to burn stubble? How much pollution it creates and leads to health troubles? We know everything. But is there any other option?”

While the Punjab government has ordered farmers in the state to install the Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS) equipment on their combine harvesters to get around the problem of stubble, Simranjeet admits he didn’t do so.

Dr J S Bains, Director, Agriculture Punjab, says the department sent a proposal of Rs 1,109 crore to the Central government, demanding that money be released immediately to provide 40 per cent subsidy to farmers for machinery to manage stubble. “However, we have received only Rs 48.5 crore.”

Of this too, says a source, only Rs 30 crore has been sanctioned by state finance department and yet to be released by the state treasury, “sanction too has come a few days ago, at the fag end of harvesting season. It implies the funds were diverted.”

State Finance Minister Manpreet Badal, when asked about delay in releasing the subsidy amount, said, “We try to release funds sent by the Centre as soon as possible but in the past few months, things haven’t been easy due to GST and other reasons.”

None of the farmers of Qadian village in Ludhiana district, which sees among the highest number of cases of stubble-burning in Punjab (2,788 up to November 9), has installed S-SMS equipment on their combine harvesters. They say that even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t have found a way. The machinery is largely unavailable due to the limited number of manufacturers, they say. “Most of them sell at high rates. Affordable ones are very few. Then, it takes a month to get subsidy bills cleared and by then, wheat-sowing period (for which they need to clear their fields of the stubble) is over. Are we really left with any option but burning?” says Gagandeep Singh, 49, who owns a 20-acre paddy farm.

A Punjab Agriculture Department source admits, “Many bills are pending. Farmers do not apply because it takes months to clear the bills before the sum is credited to their accounts. The area under paddy in Punjab is 30 lakh hectares, but machinery is available to manage just 2 lakh hectares.”

Express Explained | Delhi air pollution: A (crop) burning issue, and the way out

The rentals for the machines, meanwhile, have skyrocketed after the Punjab government announced that FIRs would be registered against those burning the fields. On October 9, six farmers were booked at Moonak in Sangrur district for burning paddy straw. Later, the CM announced that no FIRs would be registered in the state against erring farmers. However, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), under orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) continues to issue challans to farmers. As on November 9, the PPCB issued 2,351 challans worth Rs 66.27 lakh. However, only Rs 4.88 lakh has been recovered.

PPCB chairman K S Pannu, while claiming there has been “at least 40% reduction in stubble burning this year”, says, “It is wrong on Delhi’s part to blame Punjab and stubble burning for its poor air quality. There are other factors too, such as airlock.”

Delhi air pollution, Crop burning, Stubble burning, Punjab crop burning, Haryana crop burning,  Labourer Golu burns stubble at Qadian village in Ludhiana. He says it’s “his routine every paddy season.” (Source: Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh)

“I paid Rs 1,300 per acre to a firm for renting a baler (to make bales of the stubble). I paid Rs 14,000 in advance. Till date, the baler has not reached my farm. The firm says the machine is not free, it is in high demand. I do not know if I will even get my money back,” says Jasmeet Singh, 50, who owns a 12-acre farm.

Almost every effort to discourage farmers from stubble-burning usually boils down to cost.

Says Simranjeet, “After the harvester takes out the grains, apart from the thick bunches of plant with roots deep inside soil, loose stubble that covers the fields also remains. The thick bunches can still be managed, but even if we attach S-SMS equipment to the combine harvester, it just chops and evenly spreads the loose stubble. The S-SMS costs Rs 1-1.15 lakh. With a Turbo Happy Seeder (THS), we can sow wheat seeds even above fields covered with straw, but it is worth Rs 1.25 lakh. This means a minimum investment of Rs 2.50 lakh.”

Also, the THS requires a tractor with minimum 50 HP, which means additional expenditure on fuel.

Another option is a rotavator, also known as rotary drill, that can compress the stubble. However, says Jaspreet Singh, 39, this too fails when it comes to loose stubble on his 27 acre. “Plus, one round of rotavator consumes diesel worth Rs 600-700.”

Mindful of accusations of pollution, farmers say they have taken to “partial burning.” Harmeet Singh, who owns a 27-acre paddy farm in Qadian, says, “I don’t burn the entire stubble, just the loose stubble. Major pollution is caused by burning plant roots, not the loose stubble. If farmers adopt this partial burning technique, there will be lesser pollution.”

Harmeet had filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court against the NGT order on paddy stubble. In 2015, the tribunal had asked Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to enforce a ban on stubble-burning and impose fines ranging from Rs 2,500 for violators with less than two acres, to Rs 15,000 for farmers with over five acres. “The order said farmers should be penalised if they burn stubble even after being provided machinery and subsidies. While the government has started penalising them, there is no sign of the machinery or subsidy. So I moved court,” Harmeet says.

For his part, he says, he also experimented with renting a plougher for Rs 1,200 per acre. A plougher costs Rs 2.5 lakh and mixes stubble within the soil. However, he said, the trial failed. “It consumed diesel worth Rs 2,500 per acre. It was better to drop the plan than go bankrupt.”

Farmers say they are even ready to go back to manual harvesting, where cutting is done close to the ground and hence leaves very little stubble. But the cost of hiring enough labourers to save time, so as to allow timely wheat-sowing, is prohibitive. Farmers say the government should pay them Rs 4,000 per acre to hire labour. “Since stubble-burning problem has become a national issue, even labour is now in shortage. We will leave combine harvesters if we are paid for labour. Or simply give us the money to buy equipment and let it be a one-time investment… It is not that we enjoy burning stubble,” says Harmeet.

He also points out that experts have not even considered the fact that not all farmers have new combines to which SMS can be fitted. “Some farmers even need new combines. I personally also tried vegetable and maize farming, but is there any fixed procurement price for it? So how can we adopt diversification?”

Incidentally, on the parts of his land where he grows basmati, Harmeet uses labourers already, as the plant is too delicate for the combine harvester machines.

Delhi air pollution, Crop burning, Stubble burning, Punjab crop burning, Haryana crop burning,  Farmer Simarjot, in his half burnt field at Qadian, says there is “no other option” (Source: Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh)

Manjeet Singh, head of the Farm Machinery and Power Engineering Department, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), insists on their three “tested” options, to check stubble-burning — “Fit combine harvesters with S-SMS, and then use the Turbo Happy Seeder or spatial drill to directly sow wheat”; “Use a baler to make bales of stubble”; and “Use a chopper (an equipment which chops stubble finely) to thresh the loose stubble and then sow wheat with Happy Seeder.”

PAU does not recommend using rotavators or rotary drills. “It leads to improper wheat sowing,” says Manjeet Singh.

The cost of a baler, though, starts at Rs 2 lakh, going up to Rs 10 lakh, while a chopper comes for Rs 1.50 lakh and a tractor with 50 HP starts at Rs 6-7 lakh.

PAU has also suggested mushroom farming in the stubble, as well as using stubble to produce ethanol and cardboards, and for power generation. But these options remain still-born.

Apart from contributing to pollution, Manjeet says, stubble-burning also deteriorates soil quality. “If stubble remains in the fields, it gives various nutrients to the soil. Soil becomes enriched. When stubble is burnt, nutrients are also burnt.”

Inder Mohan Singh, 48, who owns 26 acres, says most farmers are aware of all this. “Who says we are not affected by the pollution? We live here. Our homes are in villages near fields from where the smoke rises. Our children also feel burning in the eyes and cough badly. But tell us a solution before blaming us for the pollution crisis. Are industries and factories not causing pollution round the year in Delhi or Ludhiana? So why are we targeted? We do not even burn fields for the whole year.”


Agar Haryana ka kisan kheti na kare toh poora Bharat bhookha mar jayega (If Haryana’s farmers don’t practise agriculture, India will die of hunger),” declares Anil Rathi, lying on a cot in the middle of his 16-acre field. After a few slow puffs of his beedi, he adds, “Since nobody is ready to buy the stubble from us, we have to burn it.”

It’s a little after 6 pm and Rathi, a farmer in Teha village in Haryana’s Sonipat district, is watching over a small group of farmers at work. The district has registered 26 cases of stubble-burning so far. With 310 cases between September 22 and the past week, Karnal district, 80 km away, has the highest stubble-burning figures in Haryana. According to state government figures, 211 of the 227 FIRs in the state have been registered in Karnal district alone.

The Haryana government has also announced a Rs-50,000 incentive for village panchayats to not burn stubble, while some district authorities, including Karnal’s, have threatened to take action against the sarpanch if any incident is reported.

Pointing to the undulating furrows in his ploughed field, which now has small green wheat sprouts, Rathi, 45, says, “Seventy per cent of the field has been sown with wheat. It was done a fortnight ago. Most of the stubble-burning was done then too. Only a small patch is left to be burnt now.”

In that “small patch,” Rathi’s men are laying out thick pipes for irrigation. They will then cover them with mud, after which a combine harvester will create trenches and sow wheat. On one side of this stretch lie three neat mounds of straw. Pradeep (22), Gulshan (25) and Prashant (24) have been given charge of setting the straw, apart from the remaining stubble, on fire. As the sun sinks further, they get on with the job.

“There is enough fog now. Satellite mein nahin dihkega (It won’t be caught by satellite trackers),” smiles Pradeep. He has a B.Tech degree, but, as he says, “There are no jobs for us, we all have to eventually rely on farming.”

Farmers admit they burn stubble at night or in the early hours of the morning to get around the NGT order.

In Teha village, as mounds of burning orange begin to light up Rathi’s fields, the group settles down for tea. “Delhi’s pollution should be blamed on the mountains of garbage on its outskirts, on the burning of plastic, on the cars on its streets… Kisan ko pradooshan se jodna galat hai (It is wrong to link farmers to pollution),” says Rathi.

Complaining about the poor revenue that agriculture yields, he says, “We sell rice for Rs 3,259 per quintal at government mandis. Wheat is sold at Rs 1,550 per quintal. Five bighas (2 acres) yields just about 25 quintals of rice in six months. There is no profit. Where do I get the money for the equipment to remove paddy stubble?”

Pradeep joins in, “And now the Haryana government is imposing fines for burning this residue. We feed our cattle with whatever we can, but no one is ready to buy the remaining stubble from us.” He claims he and other farmers in the village too have been fined, but refuses to give any details. “There was no FIR, just a fine,” he says.

Delhi air pollution, Crop burning, Stubble burning, Punjab crop burning, Haryana crop burning,  Anil Rathi (in a vest) and farmers of Sonipat’s Teha village burn stubble after sunset, when the fog thickens, “to avoid satellite trackers” (Express Photo/Gajendra Yadav)

D K Behera, Director General of Haryana Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Department, says the state has a subsidy budget of Rs 65 crore for machinery to manage stubble, and 1,000 farmers have been given the subsidy so far.

“However, the department can only give a 20 per cent subsidy on the equipment the farmers buys. Because of this, we have used only Rs 26.75 crore from the budget. The subsidy must be increased to 40-50 per cent to make the scheme popular,” he says, adding that they have raised the matter with the Centre.

In Bhusli village in Karnal district, Ram Mehar Singh, 45, is busy watching ‘Happy Seeder’ videos on a ‘Krishi Kendra’ WhatsApp group — with over 100 farmers as members — since the morning. The paddy and wheat farmer says he has been eager to purchase the equipment that will allow him to deal with his stubble, “but does not have the funds.”

Singh attributes the vast stubble-burning in the district to the high production of paddy in the belt — it is cultivated in 1.72 lakh hectares every year.

“We grow the PR and 1509 basmati rice varieties. While its stubble can be cut by hand, it is the cost that deters the farmers. Manual labour costs Rs 3,000 per day, whereas a hired combine harvester will do the job in Rs 1,000 for a day. The harvester, however, leaves the high, 60-cm stubble,” explains Singh, speaking on the behalf of villagers for his sarpanch daughter-in-law Kusum Lata.

The stubble cut by hand, on the other hand, is just a few centimeters high. “It is used to make mattresses and sofas,” he says.

Owner of 20 acres, Singh says he realises the damage caused by stubble-burning. “All the minerals in the top layer of the soil get destroyed. The roots of both rice and wheat plants reach only about 6 inches deep, which is not enough to absorb minerals. For a field where stubble has been burnt, we need 50 kg of fertilisers, that costs Rs 1,200 for every acre, whereas for a manually harvested field, it is half of that,” he adds.

As he crosses fields with large, burnt patches, he adds sheepishly, “We have stopped 70 per cent of stubble-burning in Bhusli, but there are always a few who resort to such measures.”

Talking about the Turbo Happy Seeder — recommended by experts to take care of most stubble problems — Singh says, “If we get the machine for Rs 60,000, yahan kisanon ki line lag jayegi (There will be a long queue of buyers).”

As he returns home, still glued to the videos on his phone, Singh asks why the farmers of Karnal would want to pollute the environment. “It affects them too. Paraali jalana kisan ki majboori hai (Stubble-burning is a compulsion for farmers).”

In Kohand village in Karnal, however, Singh’s claims that “farmers in Karnal are changing their ways” fall flat. “Yahan sab paraali phukan hai (Everyone is burning stubble here),” says Sonu.

At 4 pm, lazily walking around a harvested paddy field, a match-box in his fist, the 28-year-old is setting ablaze several mounds of stubble. As thick fumes rise, Sonu covers his face with his hand.

At Rs 9,000 per month, the contract labourer has been tasked with burning stubble across 48 acres. “I have been doing this for the past week. No one has come to stop me yet. It may get captured in satellite visuals, but then it could be anyone’s field. They can’t track us,” he says defiantly.

Less than 20 km away, in Karnal’s Uncha Siwana village, however, farm labourers Preeto (45) and Kalua (55) complain of severe health problems “for years.” At Rs 400 per day, they collect the paddy straw and feed it to cattle. On other days, they also help burn stubble. Loading large heaps of stubble on a cart, Preeto says, “The entire village suffers from cough and cold. We have raised the issue at several panchayat meetings, without a solution.”

Adds Kalua, “This year we took very few stubble-burning work. We prefer collecting the straw and selling it to other farmers. They pay anything between Rs 300 and 500 for a quintal. But yes, a large part remains on the fields and is burnt.”

S Narayanan, member secretary, Haryana Pollution Control Board, says the situation is improving. “Since 2013, we have allied with the Haryana Space Application Centre, which helps us spot the fires through satellite. We also rely on local administration to spot fires. At this time last year, the number of reported cases was around 1,800, whereas this year there have been about 1,100, and the season for stubble-burning is almost over. There is also a lot of awareness among farmers now,” he says.

Slamming Delhi for putting blame on farmers, Gurnam Singh Chaduni of the Bharatiya Kisan Union says, “There is no paddy farming in regions such as Mewat, Rewari and Jhajjar, which are close to the Capital. In Rohtak, they grow basmati; the harvesting is done manually and the straw is sold,” he says.

Back in Tehu village, as the stubble in the field turns to ash, Rathi and his men disperse, finding their way in the dark. “Voices of distressed farmers have been echoing from all parts of the country. We are clutching at straws, please keep us out of the pollution debate,” says Rathi.

Gulshan, another farmer from the same village, asks, “Yes, we are just 40 km from the Capital and the air is bound to get polluted there from stubble-burning. But doesn’t Delhi’s pollution harm us too?”

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