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Stubble management: It's time the governments move from ceremonial advice to mission-mode

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 9 November 2017, 18:30 IST
Farmers set agricultural stubble on fire in Haryana (Parveen Negi/India Today Group/Getty Images)

It is not just the national capital of Delhi but the adjoining areas of Punjab, Haryana and even western Uttar Pradesh where daily life has been hit because of smog engulfing the landscape.

The ones, however, being blamed for all the smog are the farmers. They have just completed their paddy harvest and are accused of burning the stubble, which has been identified as the main source behind the smog.

The prevailing scenario is a pointer to the fact that neither ceremonial advising nor coercive measures are a solution to the problem. What is required is that the government intervenes at both the socio-political and socio-economic level where farmers are also taken on board.

Wednesday was a black day for Punjab as 10 people, including eight students, lost their lives in two accidents on foggy roads near Bathinda. Daily life has also been hit in Haryana where the state administration has decided that the timings of all government, government-aided and unaided private schools have been changed till the end of the month. According to the state education minister Ram Bilas Sharma, the school timings will now be from 9 AM to 3:30 PM. In Punjab too, schools have been shut till Sunday.

Primary focus

What needs to be deconstructed here is the root cause of stubble burning. Eminent agriculture expert RS Ghuman of Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh explains the difference between the utilisation of farm residue in the cases of wheat and paddy – the two main crops in this region. While the wheat residue is extracted and converted into chaff that is used as animal fodder that brings in good money, there is no such utilisation in the case of the paddy residue.

With the use of combined harvesters for harvesting the crops the stubble with a height of one feet to two feet remains in the field. Since the window between paddy harvest and wheat sowing is very small – last only about three weeks – the farmers resort to the shortcut of burning the stubble in the fields. With free power available, they later irrigate the fields for wheat sowing.

Ghuman points out that the farmers can use reapers to extract the stubble and then dump it but the problem is – where to dump or stock it.

“The implements available for extracting the stubble cost anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 15 lakh, which the farmers are not ready to procure and why should they? There is technology available for cutting and baling the paddy residue that can be used as an input in cardboard manufacturing units. But the government has shut down a majority of cardboard units over the last decade and a half on the grounds that these units were causing pollution,” Ghuman told Catch.

“Similarly this stubble can be used for generating thermal power. There used to be a stubble-power generating plant in Jalkhedi village between Sirhind and Patiala, the fate of which is presently not known to me. If the government invests in more such plants they can serve the dual purpose of both taking care of the stubble and also generating employment,” he added.

Another measure Ghuman suggests is – providing machinery to the farmers through village co-operatives for extracting the stubble which may later be used for power generation or as an input for cardboard units if the government finds it feasible to allow their return.

Experts have been pointing that the Punjab and central governments over the last several years have been advocating a shift from paddy and usher in alternate cropping. But all this amounts to 'ceremonial advice' unless the government plays facilitator backing the risk that the farmer is taking.

According to some the answers lie in interventions at the socio-economic and socio-political levels. The judicial activism too will not work. To explain the situation, they pointed out that the dowry act has been in existence for decades yet there are dowry deaths being reported almost daily.

Potential solutions

Senior political and social commentator on Punjab affairs Jagtar Singh has pointed out in his latest article that Delhi heading towards environmental disaster might produce some solution. The best one would be to reduce area used for paddy cultivation in Punjab gradually while incentivising farmers to opt for other cash crops.

Farmers mainly need assured price and marketing.

“It is the country that should pay this cost (of stubble management), not the farmer who is already paying the cost of feeding the nation,” Singh said while pointing out that the nation must save Punjab's farmers from paddy cultivation by providing necessary conditions to diversify to save people in Delhi.

“This can be done by shifting the thrust of the farm policy, in case there is one, from input to output. Farmers in Punjab have been diversifying at their own and have experimented with almost every crop. What is lacking is the support from the government. It was the government that had provided incentives for wheat-paddy rotation. The same thrust is now needed to wean farmers away from paddy,” he wrote.

Blame game

Meanwhile, the governments and political forces continue to shift the blame while much remains to be done on the ground.

There have been reports of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal expressing concerns over rising pollution on account of stubble burning. He has sought a meeting with his counterparts in Punjab and Haryana.

Ironically, there have also been reports of his own party man Sukhpal Khaira, who is the leader of opposition in Punjab, himself burning stubble to express support to the farmers. The Indian Express has carried a picture of him leading the farmers to burn stubble in Samrala on 15 October.

Meanwhile, sharing Kejriwal's concern, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has pointed that the situation warrants urgent intervention by the central government which should immediately sanction compensation for farmers to check stubble burning.

Amarinder said chief ministers holding discussions would serve no meaningful purpose, with the Centre alone equipped to address this grave issue, which has inter-state implications. He underlined that since multiple states were involved, any meeting without the central government’s intervention would be inconsequential.

He pointed that like Delhi, Punjab is also suffering as a result of the unbearable effects of smog and pollution, forcing the closure of schools and other institutions in many districts and change in timings in others. The situation in Punjab is so serious that a spate of accidents over the past few days due to smog has led to several people getting killed and many injured.

Pointing out that he has been consistently pursuing the matter with the central government, Amarinder has reiterated his demand for immediate central assistance to farmers to enable them to opt for methods other than burning to get rid of the paddy straw. He has been requesting the central government to provide a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal over and above the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy to compensate them for the additional financial burden arising from stubble management.

He added that Punjab is helpless as it cannot force or penalise the beleaguered farmers trying hard to cope with massive debt burdens and do not have the money to meet the cost of stubble management. He said that all efforts are being made to spread awareness and encourage the farmers to adopt alternative methods of eliminating the paddy straw.

With Punjab expecting a production of 18 million tonnes of paddy this season leading to the generation of 20 million tonnes of straw, it is not possible for the state to make arrangements to store all the stubble.

More stubble trouble

Meanwhile, in view of the orders given by the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal, the environment department in Haryana has taken a tough stance on cases of stubble burning.

Haryana Pollution Control Board has started a statewide campaign under which till Tuesday 1,011 farmers have been identified and marked burning stubble across the state. The department has filed police cases as well as imposed fines on them.

Haryana Environment Minister Vipul Goel has appealed to farmers to not burn the remains of their crops. FIRs have been filed against 227 farmers in cases caught by the Pollution Control Board. Apart from this, 454 farmers were charged a fine of Rs 11,89,500.

Goel also stated that other cases are also being probed. He said that burning the remains of crops is not a solution. The government has given many other options to the farmers to destroy the stubble.

The opposition in Haryana, be it the Indian National Lok Dal or the Congress, have been standing with the farmers on the issue putting the onus of the stubble management on the government.

The problem now needs both a short and long-term solution. According to Ghuman, “It is high time the issue is taken up on a missionary mode.”

First published: 9 November 2017, 17:24 IST