Field report: Why farmers are still burning stubble despite machines being available

WITH THE COST of fuel needed to run stubble management machines eating into their profits, farmers in parts of Punjab have been unwilling to use even machines that are available.

And probably it is not just the rental for such machines and higher diesel costs that bog down farmers, but lack of aggregators to pick up straw, turn them into bales, and then transport them. If not this, smaller farmers point out that governments can provide some financial incentives for them to take up this work in earnest. Farmers also said there were not many biomass power units nearby that use straw as fuel for generating electricity.

Around 1.5 acres of farmland in Patiala’s Ranghera village was on fire Friday afternoon, much like several others in the state where charred stubble lies on the field, or the farmland is still on fire before the rabi crop is sown. For the farmer, it was easier to set it on fire. “It is expensive to use the machine. Diesel is expensive at around Rs 90 per litre. To deal with the stubble and sow using a machine, it can cost around Rs 2,000 for this plot of land. In addition to the machine, the tractor also needs to be rented. Super-seeders need substantial fuel and a large tractor,” said one farmer who did not wish to be identified.

Among those who did not want to use machines that they would have to rent and refuel, the most sought-after stubble management method appeared to be one where the straw is picked up for use as fuel in industrial units either for free from the farmer or on paying the farmer for the straw. But the farmer in Ranghera village said, “It’s been 15 days since it was harvested. We called somebody to pick it up and turn it into bales, like they did in the neighbouring fields. They never came,” said the farmer.

Farmers with large tracts of land have also set their fields on fire. Baldev Singh, who owns around 100 bighas of land in Sakrali village, Patiala, got workers to set parts of his field on fire on Friday. Pointing to a still unburnt patch, he said, “This was harvested around 15 days ago. I had called somebody, a private company, to turn it into bales and take it away. But they didn’t come. I can wait only for another 5-6 days (before sowing the next crop).”

Singh said it didn’t make sense for him to buy the machines he needed since the work was seasonal and limited to a small-time frame. On renting the machines, he said the cost of the fuel was expensive. “It’s not practical to spend that much. The best solution is that the machine comes to take it away for the plant (waste to energy plants),” he said.

Not far from Baldev Singh’s field, a baler packs the straw up into neat parcels on a 6-acre farm in Kalar Majri, Patiala. The baler is a tractor-mounted machine that turns the straw into compact bales that can then be transported.

Satnam Singh, the fuel shift in-charge at an edibles manufacturing company in Ludhiana, said the company has engaged 80 balers to collect around 2 lakh tonnes of straw this year which will be used in a 15-MW plant that will generate electricity from it. The owner of the land is, in turn, paid around Rs 145 per quintal for it.

Sukhwinder Singh, who owns the baler, purchased the machine this year. “It’s the first time that I am buying it. I bought a second-hand machine since I didn’t want to get caught up in the paperwork of the subsidy. For about a month now, the machine has been running all day and even late into the night. It can cover around 20-30 acres in a day,” he said.

“I decided to get one this year since the need is only increasing. Kisan santusht nahi hain (Farmers are not happy). Stubble burning is an issue of the farmer not being satisfied… these machines are there,” he said.

These units that use the straw, however, have not come up everywhere, said Hardeep Singh, a farmer in Barnala, who owns around 50 acres of land. “Our farmers’ group has not bought one yet because there is no factory close by that can use it. Transporting the straw to another district will involve expenses. Even a single machine in a village will be very useful,” he said.

Krunesh Garg, Member Secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board, said, “Twelve units are using paddy straw for their industrial boilers and that quantity will be around 7 lakh tonnes this year. Seven of these are new units, five are older ones. Ten biomass power plants are using 8.8 lakh tonnes. Three CBG (compressed biogas) plants are purchasing around 1.2 lakh tonnes this year. With this, this year, we are seeing a 33 per cent

increase in ex-situ management of paddy straw. We hope to increase it to 1.8 million tonnes from 1.2 million tonnes… there are others from whom we may not have data since paddy straw is being baled and sent to neighbouring states as well for use in industries. The number of balers has also increased.”

Subsidies on crop residue management machinery are being provided under the Union government’s crop residue management scheme since 2018-19. While individual farmers are entitled to a subsidy of 50% on machines like the super-seeder, farmers’ groups can avail 80% subsidy. Cooperatives, farmers groups and individual farmers have all made use of the subsidy scheme in the past few years, which means that more machines are now available.

For instance, the Badbar Agricultural Cooperative Society in Barnala now has four super-seeders that were all bought in three years, the most recent addition this year. A non-governmental association helped the society procure a super-seeder and rotavator for free this year – they paid the amount that the subsidy does not cover.

The society has around 400 active members. While the machines are provided to members on priority, people living within a 25-km radius also use them, Major Singh, Secretary of the Badbar society, said. All stubble management machines the society has may together be able to cover around 50-60 acres a day, he said.

Manpreet Singh, secretary of the Rohti Mouran Agricultural Cooperative Society in Rohti Mouran, Patiala, which has around 540 members, said tha the society had purchased a single super-seeder this year, for which they are entitled to an 80% subsidy. Super-seeders remove the stubble, prepare the field and sow the seeds all at the same time.

“We paid around Rs 2.70 lakhs for the machine, but we’re yet to receive the subsidy amount. The members of the society wanted to purchase one this year. We had applied for the subsidy in August, but it is already late. It was difficult for us to pay that amount up front. Earlier, the subsidy amount went directly to the manufacturer, but this year that has changed, making it difficult for societies that may not be able to pay the entire

amount upfront,” he said.

Not far from the society’s building, the road that leads to Rohti Mouran is enveloped in smoke with the burning picking up pace later in the afternoon. Somebody will have to pick the stubble up, a farmer with only a few bighas of land is not going to use a machine, said a farmer who had set his field on fire in Rohti Mouran, as he tries to usher vehicles through the thick cloud of smoke.

Hardeep Singh, the farmer in Barnala, has four super-seeders, in addition to other equipment, as part of a group of eight farmers that was set up in 2020. The group bought a single super-seeder this year. He swears by the use of the super-seeder to handle stubble. “The number of machines has gone up in the past two-three years. The people who are still burning now appear to be foolish since they’re also killing useful microorganisms in the soil when they have alternatives,” he said. The group’s super-seeders, except for one, were out on the job on Saturday.

More machines are now available but that hasn’t translated into a smaller fire count. A total of 30,000 new machines have been sanctioned this year, Garg said, adding to the existing number of 90,422. This includes different crop residue management machines including super-seeders, balers and mulchers.

Till Saturday, Punjab had recorded 29,400 farm fires, more than the 28,973 fire counts till November 5 last year, according to data from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. There were 71,304 fire events during the season last year, lower than 76,590 recorded in 2020, and 55,210 recorded in 2019.

On Nabha Road, Patiala, fires dotted the horizon even at dusk on Friday. Till November 5, Patiala had recorded 2,951 burning events, higher than the 2,078 recorded till November 5 last year. This year, Barnala has seen slightly fewer burning events (1,606) compared to last year’s 1,743.

Navdeep Singh, who runs a company that sells agricultural machinery in Barnala said, “There are farmers who tried the super seeder on a part of their land last year and then scaled it up this year. Subsidy now goes directly to the farmer. Until last year, the manufacturer would get it. Balers and super-seeders have seen good use this year… balers because units have started stocking up on the straw.”

In Barnala, Major Singh, secretary of the Badbar society, who owns around 4 acres, said, “More machines are definitely available now. But the burning may have reduced only by around 5-10% compared with earlier years,” he said.

Besides, there are problems that are yet to be addressed. “Tractors are not subsidized, but all machines are tractor-mounted. And, to operate a super-seeder, we need a larger tractor,” he said.

With farmers who own little land and those who own large fields, the reason for burning is the same – profits, he said. “If a farmer with 5 acres produces around 100 quintals of rice, he will sell it for an MSP of around Rs 2,000. The farmer’s expenses can come up to Rs 1.25 lakh, including fertilizers and fuel,” he added.

A straw management machine (SMS) that cuts the straw and spreads it on the field is used along with the combine harvester, the machine that harvests the crop. The farmer then uses a super-seeder on it. This combination of the combine harvester and the SMS will consume more diesel. If a super-seeder runs on straw that has not been managed with the SMS, it will also guzzle fuel, Major Singh explained. Hardeep Singh, the farmer in Barnala said that the super-seeder can consume around 7 litres of fuel per acre.

Along NH7 that connects Barnala and Sangrur, paddy stubble was on fire Saturday, quickly turning from gold to black.

What’s the cost of setting the farms on fire? Not much. The farmer in Ranghera village, Patiala, said, “I don’t know of anybody in the village who has been fined. People with larger areas like 10 acres, have set fire to the field.”

Garg said that a total of Rs 96 lakh had been imposed as fines for stubble burning so far this season. “Of course, enforcement is difficult,” he said. On how much has been collected so far, he said, “We are not pushing for collection as of now.”

Is paying a financial incentive an alternative? The Aam Aadmi Party governments in Delhi and Punjab had suggested providing a financial incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre for farmers to not burn paddy stubble. Of this, Rs 500 each was to be from the Delhi and Punjab governments and Rs 1,500 from the Union government. Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai had said earlier that this proposal did not work with the Union government unwilling to share the cost.

For the farmer in Patiala’s Ranghera village, the financial incentive may help pay for fuel to run the stubble management machinery. “They said they’ll give Rs 2,500 this time, but that didn’t happen. At least that money would have helped with the fuel. The state governments so far have all been the same,” he said.

“Yeh mann ki baat hain. There are solutions, but if the farmer has decided that he wants to burn it, he will,” said Jaginder Singh, a farmer from Badbar village, Barnala.

Another measure that the AAP government intended to try in Punjab this year along with the third year of its use in Delhi was the PUSA bio-decomposer, a microbial solution that is meant to help decompose paddy stubble. While some farmers had not heard about the bio-decomposer at all, others were skeptical about its use. “That is something that might work only on paper. There isn’t enough time for a spray like that,” Baldev Singh said.

In Mehlan, Sangrur, a nine-acre plot of land belonging to three brothers is on fire close along NH52 on Saturday. Harjeet Singh, a local leader of the BKU Ugrahan (Bharatiya Kisan Union), arrived at the field soon after it was set on fire. “The pink bollworm is an issue if the machines are used to manage stubble. The worm remains in the leftover stubble and can damage the next crop. One way to deal with the issue of burning is to reduce the area under paddy and provide and enforce MSP for other crops. The (Punjab) government is now buying moong at MSP, but that is also not being enforced properly,” he said.

Vinay Sehgal, principal scientist, IARI, said, “Currently we are seeing that in Punjab the fire count is more than last year. It (the figures) will be clear in another week or so since most harvesting and burning will be done by then. In Punjab, there could have been some delay in harvesting due to the impact of rainfall. That could be one reason for the fire count. But machines have been provided…”

Sehgal said, “It has to be a combination of measures. Balers have been more in vogue this year and more in demand. But machines have been given and if they still don’t suffice, then we need to provide more. These schemes may have to continue for longer.”

“Of course, it impacts the cropping cycle and the farmers’ profits, but more efforts will have to be put in to prevent burning, from all quarters – scientists should be able to provide cheaper, more scalable technology, governments should be willing to provide money and farmers should be able to put in the efforts,” he said.

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