Context: Stubble Burning in northern parts of India, especially in Punjab, has been a matter of debate for a long time now. The reason given is that stubble burning adds to the extreme pollution in Delhi and adjoining areas which is already suffering from severe quality air. In this context, it is important to examine the impact of stubble burning and the possible solutions to this problem.
Prelims: General issues on Environmental Ecology, Bio-diversity, and Climate Change
Mains: GS III- Major crops cropping patterns in various parts of the country, different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage, transport and marketing of agricultural produce and issues and related constraints; e-technology in the aid of farmers.
What is stubble burning?
- Stubble burning is a common practice followed by farmers to prepare fields for sowing of wheat in November as there is little time left between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat.
- Stubble burning results in the emission of harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide along with particulate matter.
As Punjab is facing a groundwater crisis due to large scale paddy cultivation, the Punjab government in order to conserve water resources, brought a law – Punjab Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act 2009 to mandatorily delay transplantation of paddy beyond June 10, when the most severe phase of evapotranspiration is over. This law has been blamed for creating the bad air crisis of North India- especially Delhi- by delaying harvesting to end-October and early November when atmospheric and wind conditions cause particulate matter and gases from burning paddy stubble to hang close to the surface.
Causes of the Stubble Burning
- Technology: The problem arises due to the use of mechanised harvesting which leaves several inches of stubble in the fields. Earlier, this excess crop was used by farmers for cooking, as hay to keep their animals warm or even as extra insulation for homes. But, now the stubble use for such purposes has become outdated.
- Impact of Laws: Implementation of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act (2009) made the time period of stubble burning coincident with the onset of winter in Northern India. Late transplanting of paddy during Kharif season to prevent water loss as directed by PPSW Act (2009) had left farmers with little time between harvesting and preparing the field for the next crop and hence farmers are resorting to the burning of stubble.
- High Silica Content: Rice straw is considered useless as fodder in the case of non-basmati rice, because of its high silica content.
Impacts of stubble burning
As the Supreme Court has noted, this polluting endangers the Right To Life because it significantly reduces the lifespan of a human being.
Moreover, this year the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic is threatening to make this situation even worse as an increase in air pollution is causing a surge in Coronavirus cases.
- Health: Stubble burning has been identified as a major health hazard and a reason for breathing illness, irritation of eyes and respiratory tract diseases.
- Air pollution: Stubble burning releases toxic pollutants like Methane, Carbon Monoxide (CO), Volatile organic compound (VOC) in air. Also, it leads to a spike in Particulate Matter levels, contributing between 12 and 60% of PM concentrations.
- Smog: Clouds of ash and smoke from stubble burning can travel more than a thousand kilometers aided by the Westerly winds coming from the Mediterranean region and create obstinate and non-clearing clouds. Smog formed of the smoke can increase the levels of pollutants by manifolds in the air leading to poor visibility and causing accidents.
- Soil nutrition: Burning husk on the ground destroys the nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium from the topsoil, making it less fertile. The heat generated by stubble burning penetrates into the soil, leading to the loss of moisture and useful microbes.
- Economic loss: Crop residue holds high productive value in the biofuel and fiber industry. Burning it deprives the farmers of higher economic returns.
Even though farmers are aware that the burning of straw is harmful to health, they do not have alternatives for utilizing them effectively. The farmers are ill-equipped to deal with waste because they cannot afford the new technology that is available to handle the waste material.
Experts say that with less income due to crop damage, farmers are likely to be inclined to light up their fields to cut costs and not spend on scientific ways of stubble management.
The need of the hour is stopping this practice and applying logical solutions in order to reduce air pollution without increasing farmers' crop production costs.
It is important to note that stubble burning is not the only or the major cause of Delhi's pollution but it has been contributing significantly to it. According to the Ministry of Earth Sciences' air quality monitor SAFAR, smoke from stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana accounted for 44% of pollution in Delhi on November 1, 2019, the highest this year.
Essentially, we come to these solutions:
- Reduce paddy area/production: Punjab achieved the highest productivity in the country and contributed maximum among all States to the central pool of rice procurement after the National policy of food sufficiency.
- In the process, the area went up from 2.6 million hectares in 2001 to 3 million hectares in 2017; production went up from 9 million tonnes to 12.5 million tonnes.
- Punjab dug deeper to get groundwater and caused long-term damage to itself.
- Over 70% of blocks in Punjab are in the dark zone on underground water stocks, according to central government estimates.
- At current rates of depletion, Punjab’s entire subsurface water resource could be exhausted in a little over two decades.
- Attempts at diversification did not take off because of the difference in net farm returns and market risks.
- A rice farmer earns about ₹57,000 per hectare whereas maize in a maize-wheat combination would set them back by about ₹15,000-17,000. The farmer will not bear this burden.
- If the idea is to reduce the area of common paddy by half a million hectares, resulting in a reduction of output of 2 million tonnes, the Central government has to step in and support this change for the next five years.
- This half-a-million hectare should be in water-stressed blocks and can be encouraged to shift to maize or any other crop. Another one lakh hectare can shift to basmati production.
- Allow farmers to plant/transplant paddy before June: There exist strong arguments to prevent over-exploitation of groundwater especially if farmers cultivate rice in April/May. The free power provided to the tubewells needs to be reconsidered. This amount of about 6000 crores may be shifted to direct bank transfers as suggested by policy experts.
- Procurement: Marketing and procurement of crop residue like husk are also being carried out in these states. The government should collaborate with cement, packaging, textiles and other industries for husk/hull or stubble collection to use it proficiently.
- This will help the farmers in earning more economic profits. MGNREGA workers can be allowed to weed out the crop stubble from paddy fields manually and mechanically.
- Compressed Bio-Gas (CBG) can be produced from biomass and organic waste sources including paddy stubble. Compressed Bio-Gas has properties similar to the commercially available natural gas and can be used as an alternative renewable fuel.
- Distribute “happy seeders”: The “happy seeder” is the most talked-about solution. Direct seeders do help but have limitations.
- First, the seeder has to operate within about 4-5 days of the harvest.
- The effectiveness depends on the moisture (not too moist, not too dry) present in the soil at the time of seeding. This requires a good understanding of soil conditions.
- The agronomic practices need to change particularly with regard to the application of fertilizer and irrigation. These machines may be used only during the 15-day window in a whole year.
- Awareness: Youth clubs, Kisan camps, radio, and television campaigns have been started to spread awareness of scientific crop residue management. Trained cadres of agriculture scientists, assistants and workers can be deployed to create awareness clarify doubts about machines and disseminate information on residue procurement.
- An expansion of schemes like the MGNREGA for harvesting and composting of parali. This has been a longstanding demand of many states. Parali can be mixed with cow dung and few natural enzymes under MGNREGA to generate high-grade compost, and also reduce air pollution in North India.
- An integrated regenerative rural development model of narwa (rivulet regeneration), garuwa (cattle conservation), ghuruwa (composting) and baari (kitchen garden) through a participatory process using MGNREGA.
- The most efficient technology to counter stubble burning at the moment is Turbo Happy Seeder (THS).
- It not only cuts and uproots the stubble but can also drill wheat seeds in the soil that have just been cleared up. The straw is simultaneously thrown over the sown seeds to form a mulch cover.
- Establishing Farm Machinery Banks for custom hiring of in-situ crop residue management machinery.
- Co-operative societies of farmers, self-help groups, registered farmers societies/farmers groups, private entrepreneurs for establishment of farm machinery banks or custom hiring centres.
- Financial incentives to small and marginal farmers to engage in the management of the residue of their non-basmati variety rice crop in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
- However, in the longer time span, shifting cropping pattern away from paddy to maize, cotton, fruits or vegetables in Punjab, Haryana and UP.
Chattisgarh “Gauthans” Model
Pusa Decomposer to Curb Stubble Burning
Recently, the scientists have developed a bio-decomposer technique called ‘PUSA Decomposers’ for converting crop stubble into compost.
The problem is complex and needs a solution. But the solution should take into consideration the economic condition of farmers, the scientific options available and the willingness of the Central government to change policy and fund a major part of the expenditure.
Proactive government intervention, aggressive media campaigns, and private industries should come together to the rescue of the farmer and the environment and solve the stubble burning issue in a time-bound manner.