Burning fields: farmers say they are helpless

Despite a Supreme Court order against stubble burning, paddy growers are continuing with the practice in Punjab. They say they are aware of the consequences but do not have any other viable option

Updated - November 17, 2019 01:10 am IST

Published - November 17, 2019 01:08 am IST - Barnala (Punjab)

PUNJAB, BARNALA, 16/11/2019: (TO GO WITH NIKHIL'S STORY): A farmer burns paddy stubble on a farm in Barnala district of Punjab, on November 13, 2019. Photo by Shiv Kumar Pushpakar / The Hindu

PUNJAB, BARNALA, 16/11/2019: (TO GO WITH NIKHIL'S STORY): A farmer burns paddy stubble on a farm in Barnala district of Punjab, on November 13, 2019. Photo by Shiv Kumar Pushpakar / The Hindu

On a November morning, Charanjeet Singh, a 64-year-old farmer in Pakhoke village in Punjab’s Barnala district, was sitting outside his house reading a Punjabi newspaper when he noticed something startling: his name had appeared in an article along with three other villagers in a list of FIRs filed by the police for a “crime” that has become rampant across Punjab at this time of the year — stubble burning.

Behind the house, wheat had already been sown in parts of the 24 acres of his charred field.

Nahi jalana chahiye, par kya karen, aur koi hal Nahi hai. Majboori hai (The stubble should not be burnt, but what else can we do, there is no other solution. I am helpless),” the sexagenarian said sitting on a cot. Mr. Charanjeet is a fourth-generation farmer growing paddy in his fields.

And he is not alone.

Across Barnala, more than two dozen farmers whom The Hindu met gave the same reason why they burn paddy stubble: “ Majboori ”. Any other method to dispose of the crop residue would cost the farmers thousands of rupees per acre in the form of labour, rent and machines and transport cost. A ₹1 matchbox is the most economical solution for them to prepare their field for the next crop.

At least 10 million metric tons of the 20 million metric tons of paddy stubble generated in Punjab every year is burnt by farmers, according to the State government.

Wind movement

The north-westerly wind carries the smoke from the stubble burnt in Punjab and Haryana to Delhi, contributing to the city’s air pollution in a range between 0% and 53% (in the last two years), as per the central government-run monitoring agency SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research).

The issue has become political over the years with the AAP government in Delhi blaming the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments for the pollution the city faces and the central government also getting involved in the blame game.

The number of stubble fires in Punjab fields between September 23 and October 13 has grown from 44,845 in 2018 to 48,689 this year — a rise 8.5%, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. On the other hand, the number of fire counts in Haryana in the same period has reduced by about 20%.

Most farmers said they came to know from television and newspapers reports that stubble burning contributed to pollution in Delhi, but they did not have any other option.

Attempts to stop burning

Punjab was traditionally not a rice-growing State. Earlier, it used to grow maize and cotton among other crops in May-June and wheat in October-November.

“In the 1960s, the government pushed the farmers to grow rice as India had to feed millions of people,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural expert.

Unlike in south India, the farmers in Punjab do not prefer to give paddy stubble as fodder to cattle (they feed them wheat stubble) and thus disposing of the residue becomes a problem, said experts.

In the 1980s, the farmers started using combine harvesters to cut paddy and it left longer stubble, about 50-60 cm long, in the fields, compared to cutting by hand, which left behind 5-10 cm long residue. The longer stubble led to increase in burning of stubble.

The government has started providing different machines to treat the stubble at 50% subsidy to individual farmers and 80% subsidy to farmers’ groups.

The Supreme Court on November 4 termed the air pollution in Delhi-NCR “worse than Emergency” and directed the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to immediately stop the farmers from burning the stubble.

However, a week later, The Hindu spotted dozens of burning fields in Barnala , Punjab. Following the Supreme Court order, the Punjab government has decided to pay ₹2,500 per acre to all small and marginal farmers who did not burn their stubble. But the process will take time. Two other Supreme Court directives to the governments — to collect stubble and give machines free of cost to small and marginal farmers — are yet to kick off.

On November 13, as Mr. Charanjeet talked outside his house in Punjab, the air pollution levels breached the ‘severe’ category in Delhi, forcing the authorities to shut all schools in the city for the next two days.

‘Unhappy’ seeder

Mr. Charanjeet said that he has been burning the stubble for the last 35 years, except for 2018 when bought a ‘Happy Seeder’ at a subsidised rate of ₹1.6 lakh.

The Happy Seeder is one of the machines the government has been pushing as a solution to stubble burning. It can be attached to a tractor and can sow the wheat seed with the paddy stubble still standing in the field.

Last year, after harvesting, Mr. Charanjeet used another machine, ‘straw chopper’, to cut the standing stubble into small pieces and evenly distribute it on the field. He then sowed the wheat using ‘Happy Seeder’.

“The crop germination did not happen properly and the layer of stubble caused pest infection. I suffered a loss of about ₹2 lakh last year,” Mr. Charanjeet said, adding, “so, I set the field on fire this year”. On November 14 afternoon, on a side of Barnala Road, Gurcharan Singh, 43, and his two sons were setting fire to paddy stubble in parts of their 50-acre field. He said he too had tried Happy Seeder, but wasn’t happy with the machine at all.

“We have another 30-acre field where we sowed wheat using Happy Seeder amid the paddy straws which were about 50-cm-long. The produce was less by about two quintal per acre,” he said. “Also, I couldn’t use the stubble from wheat for cattle as the paddy straw got mixed with it,” he added.

While many of the bigger farmers, who used the machines, faced problems, smaller famers said they could not afford the machines and their running cost.

Solutions at hand

In Mehal Kalan village, the farmers said that the government’s decision to give ₹2,500 for not burning stubble was announced through loudspeakers at the local gurdwara.

Pointing to a field that was on fire, Avtar Singh, 55, who owns a one-acre land, said: “The decision [incentive] came very late. Almost 90% of the farmers have already burnt the stubble in their fields.” “Since everyone else has burnt the stubble, the few who are left are not going to take care of the residue by spending their own money,” he added.

Barnala District Commissioner Tej Partap Singh Phoolka admitted that stubble burning was happening in the district but said it was less than last year as many farmers had adopted different techniques.

“We have filed 73 FIRs and have issued 539 challans, but the farmers’ associations are really strong here and they have announced a dharna here tomorrow [November 15],” he said.

He said the ₹2,500 incentive announced by the government will go a long way in stopping stubble burning. “Next year, I feel, the burning of stubble will come down by about 80%,” he said.

“The farmer will have to fill up a form after harvest, declaring that he has not burnt the stubble. Then there will be an inspection by the Revenue Department. After that the form will go to the registrar of cooperative society and the money will be deposited in the farmer’s bank account,” he said.

“The farmers can get the money immediately or it may take up to two months,” Mr. Phoolka said.

Monetary incentive

“We have been requesting the Central government for the last five years to provide ₹100 per quintal [of rice] to all farmers, small and big, if they do not burn the stubble. But they have not accepted it. We are also asking them to take the burden of rice from Punjab and procure maize instead at a fixed price,” Punjab Agriculture Secretary Kahan Singh Pannu told The Hindu .

“A combination of these two is the only solution to prevent stubble burning. How many people can we put behind the bars,” he asked.

The farmers said that they can treat the stubble in situ by using a combination of different machines if they get the incentive from the government. “We have the idea [how to treat stubble in situ], but we do not have the money,” said Mr. Charanjeet.

Asked if he is convinced that the government would pay the farmers, he shook his head and said: “ Kuch Nahi hoga. Sarkar kuch Nahi karegi (Nothing will happen. The government is not going to do anything).”

Most farmers across Barnala said they were not sure if the government would actually pay the money.

Mr. Avtar Singh of Mehal Kalan said that if the government goes back on its promise, it will only worsen the situation. “Now that the government has made the promise, if it and does not pay the farmers, they will never believe the government and the burning will go on.”

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