Stubble Burning: Use of Machines By Farmers Can Save Delhi’s Lungs
Any long-term solution to the alarming level of air pollution in the national capital must create a situation whereby farmers are not required to burn the standing straw.
Any long-term solution to the alarming level of air pollution in the national capital must create a situation whereby farmers are not required to burn the standing straw.(Representational image: iStock)

Stubble Burning: Use of Machines By Farmers Can Save Delhi’s Lungs

(This article was first published on 15 November 2016 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the start of the annual burning of stubble. The practice in Punjab and Haryana is often blamed for compounding air pollution in the national capital region ahead of the onset of winter.)

It has been an altogether new farming experience for Vikas Chaudhary, a young and widely travelled farmer in Haryana’s Karnal district, after he acquired two agri-implements – a happy seeder and a maize planter – in 2012. He can now directly sow wheat or maize without going through the time-consuming process of manual cultivation.

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The purchase was done with a view to cut costs and tackle the acute labour shortage. And the savings were substantial – Rs 2,000 an acre as input cost for paddy and Rs 2,500 an acre for wheat. The labour requirement dropped by at least 15 percent, he had told me in the summer of 2015. Substantial tangible benefits aside, the mechanisation of farms also ensured that he was not required to burn paddy crop stubble to prepare his farm for the next crop.

Straw stubble that remains after wheat and other grains have been harvested are set on fire which can be hazardous for the environment. (Photo: iStock)
Straw stubble that remains after wheat and other grains have been harvested are set on fire which can be hazardous for the environment. (Photo: iStock)

Growing Menace of Straw

If the model followed by Vikas is replicated elsewhere, we are unlikely to have something like smog crippling lives in Delhi and adjoining cities and towns as it has done now. Any long-term solution to the alarming level of air pollution in the national capital must create a situation whereby farmers are not required to burn the standing straw.

According to a reliable estimate, Punjab alone produces nearly 20 million tonnes of straw every year. Paddy-growing Haryana also contributes its bit to this large pool of standing crop stubble.

And right after Diwali, most of it is burned to prepare land for the next crop, causing acute air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR). It is estimated that the burning of crop stubble (nearly 32 million tonnes every year) contributes 25 percent of the total air pollution during winter months in Delhi and its satellite towns like Noida and Gurugram. Its contribution to the rising pollution in the city rose to an alarming level in the first week of November 2016.

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Penal Action Won’t Work

Farmers have been requested not to burn the stubble. But appeals have not worked yet. Penal action will raise the cost of compliance and may be an unwise decision politically.

Technology alone can offer a long-term solution. And there is already a solution in hand, if only most of the farmers follow the model adopted by Vikas. The cost of acquiring farm implements though is a deterrent. What is the way out then? Farmers not far away from Karnal have shown us the way.

Also Read: Airpocalypse: What Delhi Can Learn From Beijing’s War On Pollution

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Convincing Farmers

  • Burning of straw in neighbouring states adds to the woes of residents of the NCR with Punjab producing 20 million tonnes of straw every year.
  • 25 percent of total air pollution during winter months in Delhi, Noida and Gurugram caused due to the burning of crop stubble.
  • Penal action not advisable due to the political costs associated with such a move.
  • Farm cooperatives in Ludhiana push for aggressive mechanisation by renting out farm equipment with high profit margins.
  • Spreading awareness about the benefits of mechanisation such as reduced cost of cultivation can help take farmers onboard.
The openness to machines, sourced mostly from cooperative societies, has brought many positive changes. (Photo: Reuters)
The openness to machines, sourced mostly from cooperative societies, has brought many positive changes. (Photo: Reuters)

Farmers’ Cooperatives Ensure Rapid Mechanisation

Farmers in Punjab’s Ludhiana district have embraced machines in ways that do not hurt their pockets and still do the job. They have gone the farmers’ cooperative route to do this.

In a visit to Ludhiana sometime in 2014, I met officials of the Noorpur Bet Cooperative Agriculture Society, a society of 740 farmers from three villages on the outskirts of the industrial city. The balance sheet of the society showed Rs 26 lakh as income from renting out farm equipment. The society owned 41 farm implements including a laser leveller, a rotavator and a happy seeder, and lends them to member farmers for a fee.

A rotavator cultivates and tills at one go and makes farmland ready for the next crop. A happy seeder is used for direct sowing. The latter ensures sowing even without removing crop stubble. Ludhiana has more than 360 such cooperative agriculture societies and NABARD officials told me that most of them have gone for aggressive acquisition of farm equipment. Mechanisation of farms, as a result, has gone up substantially in this region.

Also Read: Scientist Says Crop Burning Causes 70% of Delhi Pollution



Can Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal take the lead in bringing all state governments on board to raise awareness about mechanised farming? (Photo: IANS)
Can Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal take the lead in bringing all state governments on board to raise awareness about mechanised farming? (Photo: IANS)

Benefits of Mechanisation

The openness to machines, sourced mostly from cooperative societies, has brought many positive changes: The cost of cultivation has come down, the adoption has come at a no extra overhead cost and the dependency on outside labour has reduced.

Farmers’ creditworthiness, as a result, has considerably gone up. Recovery ratio of short-term crop loans to farmers has improved; from nearly 92 percent in 2004 to more than 97 percent in 2014, in case of a large Ludhiana-based cooperative bank, NABARD officials had told me.

Taking Farmers Onboard

Why would farmers resist adoption of machines with so many tangible benefits? We just have to launch a mass awareness campaign and strengthen the hitherto dysfunctional cooperative agriculture societies elsewhere in the country. Wise farmers will be quick to respond.

Can Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal take the lead in bringing all state governments onboard to do something like this? With very little extra cost, one of Delhi’s perennial, and now very menacing, problem will become more manageable. If accompanied by other measures, Delhi may reclaim its lungs once again.

Also Read: Delhi Pollution: Alas, It’s Vote Bank Behind the ‘Air Emergency’!

(Breathe In, Breathe Out: Are you finding it tough to breathe polluted air? Join hands with FIT in partnership with #MyRightToBreathe to find a solution to pollution. Send in your suggestions to fit@thequint.com or WhatsApp @ +919999008335)

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