It’s a scramble to offer reasons for the “poor air” in Delhi at the grain mandi here roughly 275 km from the national capital.
“It’s not just we who are contributing to pollution…,” states Kirpal Singh, a 35-year old farmer from Isru village, which is a 11-km drive from what is considered Asia’s largest wholesale grain market. The men around him, seated on a charpoy next to sacks of freshly-procured paddy, fill in the blanks: “factories, 20-year-old diesel vehicles, thermal power plants, dust from construction sites…”. All of them chide “Dilliwalas” for making “unnecessary noise” over what they believe is a once-a-year inconvenience.
The inconvenience concerns paddy stubble burning. Every year, starting late-September and through October, farmers mainly from Punjab and Haryana set their paddy fields on fire after harvesting. It isn’t an act of defiance, but merely a low-cost straw-disposal practice that also reduces the turnaround time between harvesting paddy and sowing the next wheat crop. The resultant smoke, however, gets carried by winds all the way to Delhi and beyond, adding to the existing suspended particulate matter (SPM) and noxious substances that clogs lungs and leaves behind a bleak sun.
Crop residue burning is a practice that came with combine harvesters — machines that harvest, thresh and clean the separated grain at one go. It takes barely an hour and Rs 1,000-1,500 to cover an acre of paddy using combines. The same job through traditional sickle-harvesting and manual threshing-cum-cleaning requires about 10 men working a full day, and costing Rs 4,500 or upwards.
But combine-harvesting also leaves behind 14-15-inch long stalks in the fields that farmers have to, then, find a way to get rid of. The simple expedient they deploy is to burn, which the farmers lounging at the Khanna mandi assert “is not a hobby, but a necessity”. Not burning would mean spending extra money and time on removing the crop stubble. And that also prevents timely planting of wheat by November 15, thereby impacting its growth cycle.
But instead of burning, why not simply incorporate the stubble back into the soil? Wouldn’t the fire, after all, also takes with it precious microflora and nutrients from the soil? The farmers’ response to that is: Well, it will require investing in additional machinery, which, too, costs money.
In an affidavit submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, headed by farm leader Balbir Singh Rajewal, has estimated the extra investment at Rs 15.30 lakh. That includes Rs 10 lakh for a four-wheel drive tractor of 75-90 horsepower, Rs 2.6 lakh for a reversible hydraulic plough, Rs 1.70 lakh for a rotary mulcher and Rs 1 lakh for a rotavator. Running these machines — which basically shred the crop residues into small pieces and uniformly spread on the field — further consume an additional 44 litres of diesel per acre, costing Rs 3,000 along with lubricant oil. Besides, the farmer has to invest Rs 1.50 lakh in a ‘Happy Seeder’, which can directly drill wheat seeds into the fields containing the cut-and-spread paddy stubble.
I have been burning paddy stubble for over two decades. Am I now expected to invest so many lakhs on machinery, that too, for use once a year on my modest holding?,” asks Joginder Singh, a five-acre farmer at the Panchkula grain market, not too far from Chandigarh.
Last Wednesday, the NGT demanded to “see” the 21 farmers that the Punjab government claimed as having helped in managing their paddy stubble. Twelve of the 21 farmers — all from Kalar Majri, a village in Patiala district’s Nabha tehsil that the state government has “adopted” — showed up at the hearing on Friday. Among them was Birdalvinder Singh, who owns a Happy Seeder. In a letter to the director of Punjab’s department of agriculture, Singh noted that he had been, for the last two seasons, planting wheat using Happy Seeder and harvesting paddy by a combine fitted with a Super Straw Management System (Super-SMS). He even offered the services of his Happy Seeder to fellow farmers at Rs 1,600 per acre, inclusive of a consultancy fee of Rs 200.
Birdalvinder Singh wasn’t the only one. Sohan Singh, proprietor of Gurdeep Engineering Works at Bhadson in Patiala, too, offered custom hiring of his combines having Super-SMS attachment to the farmers of Kalar Majri. They would have to only pay an extra Rs 500 per acre, over what it cost to harvest paddy using regular combines. Both men were willing to sign agreements with the agriculture department for providing their services.
But most farmers The Indian Express interacted with hadn’t even seen the cheerfully-named Happy Seeder, while some had at the Punjab government-organised agricultural melas (fairs). Virtually everyone held that they could not afford it. Also, neither they nor their local cooperative society had received any government assistance to procure the machine. The same was the case with Super-SMS; not many relished the idea of spending out Rs 2,000-2,500 for harvesting an acre, as against Rs 1,000-1,500 through combines sans this attachment.
And it’s not farmers alone. Combine harvester manufacturers, barring one or two, are unhappy about being forced to attach Super-SMS, as it requires making modifications to their machines and replacing the existing engines with higher capacity ones. The re-jigged machines, moreover, need to be approved by the Farm Machinery Training & Testing Institute at Hisar, Haryana before commercial sales. “All this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Besides, some manufacturers are being favoured, whereas the registration of our machines has been suspended because they have no Super-SMS. And without registration, no bank is willing to finance the purchase of our machines,” alleges a combine maker, also based in Bhadson.
He blames the current situation on total lack of planning. “After the NGT raised the matter, the job of preventing stubble burning fell on the Punjab Pollution Control Board, which, for want of expertise, referred it to the state agriculture department. The latter, in turn, passed the buck to the Punjab Agricultural University, which developed these straw management machines that we are supposed to install,” he adds.
The Punjab government is seeking to showcase its efforts by projecting Kalar Majri as a “model” village for farmers elsewhere to emulate. “We don’t have the money to subsidise all our farmers. That’s why we have asked for a Rs 2,000-crore package from the Centre. So, if an equipment costs Rs 1 lakh, the farmer can pay Rs 60,000.
Of the balance Rs 40,000 subsidy, Rs 24,000 can come from the Centre and Rs 16,000 from the state government,” says Manmohan Kalia, joint director of Punjab’s agriculture department.
Meanwhile, the NGT has imposed fines for crop burning, ranging from Rs 2,500 on small farmers cultivating less than two acres, to Rs 15,000 for those with over five acres. According to some farmers, the challans have acted as a deterrent for setting their own fields on fire. However, the member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, A Sudhakar, believes that the incidence of crop burning in the Punjab-Haryana region has so far been more or less the same as last year.
We expected the pollution (in terms of SPM) to be lower 30-40 per cent this time, but only about 10 per cent reduction has been observed. Even that has happened because the winds have been blowing at 900 metres and above. At these heights, the fumes aren’t getting trapped and are being dispersed by the time they reach Delhi. But this could change in the coming days,” he points out.