Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

The flaming fields of Punjab

Ploughing on: Farmers are in a defiant mood in the face of the State government’s threat to take stringent action against them. Farmers belonging to a faction of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta guard their village on the outskirts of Patiala from government officials who are penalising them for setting paddy stubble on fire.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar

Barely 10 kilometres from Patiala, the home town of Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, Jagdish Singh is busy gauging the speed and direction of the wind in the tiny village of Ranbirpura to find the right time to set his paddy crop residue on fire. He looks worried. With autumn setting in, early morning dew poses a problem.

“The weather has to be calm,” the 40-year-old paddy farmer says. “Else the fire could spread to my neighbour’s farm in no time and cause a lot of damage. I have to be careful.”

Jagdish bends down and clutches a handful of paddy straw residue that is spread across his five-acre field. It has to be bone dry to catch fire, he explains. Looking up at the sky, he thinks he will finish his job before dusk. But before setting out to do the task, Jarnail has to be cautious for another reason: there are strict orders from the government to stop such activities. He squints into the distance to check if there is a government official lurking around.

It is not as though Jagdish wants to be defiant. He is well aware of the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order banning stubble burning, but unless the State government offers financial incentives to farmers, he says, he is “compelled to burn the harvested crop’s residue.”

A ban that’s a bane

In 2015, the NGT was forced to stop the practice of stubble burning after thick smog enveloped the northern skies with the onset of autumn yet again, and acute respiratory problems were reported to be worsening in the national capital. The NGT banned the burning of paddy straw in four States — Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — and Delhi.


In its order, the tribunal fixed a penalty for burning paddy residue. The fine for small land owners with less than two acres indulging in crop burning is ₹2,500. For medium landowners holding land over two acres but less than five acres, it is ₹5,000. And those with over five acres have to cough up ₹15,000 for every instance of crop burning.

The NGT also ordered the State governments to take punitive action against persistent offenders. It also directed the four States and Delhi to make arrangements to provide machinery free of cost to farmers with less than two acres, ₹5,000 to farmers with medium-sized land holdings, and ₹15,000 to those with large land holdings for residue management.

Jagdish says he hasn’t received the amount to which he is entitled. “What then are my options?” he says. “To engage labour or machinery will cost me somewhere between ₹4,000 and 5,000 an acre, which I can’t afford.” The NGT order has only added to his woes, he says — the burden of an agricultural loan he had borrowed from banks and commission agents is already weighing him down. “Farming has become a loss-making venture,” he laments.

Such sentiments among farmers are commonplace. According to State government data, there are around 18.5 lakh farming families in Punjab. Around 65% of them are small and marginal farmers. Of the 5.03 million hectares of area constituting Punjab, around 4.23 million hectares are under cultivation. As the State mainly follows a rice-wheat cropping pattern, it contributes 60% to the wheat bowl and 40% to the rice bowl of the central pool. Around 75% of its population depends directly on agriculture.

Harpreet Singh, 30, is from Dharamgarh village in Mohali district. He says he is ready to face the legal consequences of defiance. “Time and cost are both crucial,” he says. “I have to prepare my land to sow wheat in the next few days. If I engage machine or labour, both of which are difficult to find, for clearing the paddy straw, it will be a time-consuming effort. It will delay my sowing of wheat and I will have less yield. Besides, it’s expensive.”

Harpreet has three acres in his joint family farm. “Farmers of my village have decided to collectively burn the residue. I’ll go with them,” he says.

Paddy is grown on an average area of around 30 lakh hectares in Punjab. After wheat, it is the biggest crop in the State. It is sown as monsoon arrives and its harvest starts from October first week. This is when trouble begins. After harvest, around 19.7 million tonnes of paddy straw is left on the fields and has to be disposed of to make way for wheat. Of this, 70-75% of paddy straw is burnt in open fields to clear the land for sowing wheat or other crops — it is the quickest and cheapest way of getting rid of the residue.

Besides disregard for the ban, with the support of several farmers’ unions, farmers have also cautioned the State government against taking stringent action against them. Several unions have made it clear that if police cases are registered against them, the government will have to face the consequences in the form of large-scale agitations.

“We don’t want confrontation, but if we are pushed, we will not sit quiet. Instead of asking us not to burn the residue, the State government should first fulfil its duty. As directed by the NGT, it should provide us machines and equipment,” says Avtar Singh Korjiwala of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta (Dhakonda).

A farmer burns paddy residue on the outskirts of Patiala.

A farmer burns paddy residue on the outskirts of Patiala.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar


The government’s response

To show that it intends to follow the diktat of the NGT, the Punjab government has chosen Kalar Majri village in Nabha area of Patiala district as a model project for implementing the tribunal’s directions and to sensitise farmers about the management of crop residue. It spares no efforts in advertising the village. The government claims that it has provided the required number of machines to farmers in Kalar Majri, and that equipment is already operational across 67 acres. Also, steps are being taken in six other villages of Patiala district to facilitate residue management.

The State government has also gone on the defensive, stating that the issue of paddy residue burning has been flagged off with the Centre with a demand for compensation to the tune of ₹100 per quintal for management of paddy straw. It has also proposed that such compensation should be given only to those farmers who efficiently manage paddy straw without burning it. Punjab has sought ₹2,000 crore assistance from the Union Agriculture Ministry for this purpose.

“We have taken several measures including providing the Happy Seeder,” says Jasbir Singh Bains, director of the Punjab Agriculture Department. “This is a machine developed by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) to plant wheat directly into harvested paddy fields without any other major operation, and to promote the use of straw baler and straw management machines for residue management. With machines like Happy Seeder, the straw is partly cut, chopped, and left as mulch. Mulch helps in reducing irrigation requirement and blocks the emergence of weeds. The crop planted with Happy Seeder is less prone to lodging. This is more profitable than conventional cultivation.” He adds: “However, urgent intervention of the Central government is needed. Unless financial assistance is provided by the Centre for boosting farm mechanisation, it is difficult for us to completely stop stubble burning.”

Bains says farmers in Punjab, especially small and marginal farmers, are already facing severe economic distress. To ask them to remove crop residue mechanically or through environment-friendly measures will only add to their misery. “We have been providing machinery on subsidy, but even that puts an additional burden of around ₹3,000 per acre on farmers for paddy straw management,” he says.

Pollution and penalties

There are many ways to tackle the problem, but a ban is not one of them, says Satnam Singh, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Manch, a consortium of 13 farmers’ unions. “The State government needs to focus on crop diversification. Instead of paddy [common rice], basmati varieties of rice should be encouraged. Basmati is manually harvested, so the problem of crop residue can be largely curtailed. Also, farming of sugarcane and vegetables needs to be promoted. Setting up more biomass-based energy plants is an option,” he says.

At his native village in Beru in Patiala, Satnam Singh points to the thick smoke billowing into the sky at a distance. “Our fellow farmer is burning residue in the field. It’s not as though we are happy inhaling this smoke but we don’t have an option. Before this smoke reaches Delhi, it affects our health. We are with the government to find a solution, but a ban is not the answer,” he says.

The story is the same everywhere. In Mirapur village, Jarnail Singh, who is preparing his 25-acre field for the next crop, is annoyed with the Amarinder Singh government. “During the recent Assembly polls, all parties, including the Congress which was voted to power, promised to resolve our problems but now the government is itself aggravating them,” he grumbles. He says he will burn the residue in the next few days unless at least ₹5,000 per acre is given to him to dispose of the residue crop.

While the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has been imposing penalties on farmers who have been found defying the ban, the farmers hardly seem deterred. PPCB officials admit that there have been several cases where farmers have confronted government officials.

Senior PPCB official G.S. Gill says that in the ongoing harvesting season, till October 18, penalty was imposed for stubble burning in 398 cases: “We are acting against erring farmers, cautioning them and imposing penalties wherever necessary. So far, we have collected a fine of ₹12,39,500.”

Possible solutions

One of the ways to resolve the problem of stubble burning would be by generating power through biomass energy plants. In Punjab, of the total paddy straw, nearly 4.3 million tonnes is consumed in biomass-based projects, paper, or cardboard mills and animal fodder, while a small portion is managed through other systems such as machinery and equipment. The rest of the 15.4 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt on the fields. Punjab has a substantial availability of agro-waste, which is sufficient to produce about 1,000 MW of electricity, but the State government’s incentives for biomass-energy plants haven’t been enough.

“We buy paddy straw [baled] from farmers to use it for generating power. We pay them ₹1,300 a tonne, but we can operate in a radius of not more than 45 km. Beyond that it is not economical for us to work,” says Ravinder Singh, plant manager at the Punjab Biomass Power Limited in Ghanour, Patiala.

Singh says the government should promote the setting up of biomass power plants. They will not only solve the problem of stubble burning but also generate electricity for the State, he notes. At present, Punjab has seven biomass-based power plants with an installed capacity of 62.5 MW.

To tackle the problem of paddy residue, the Ludhiana-based PAU is working on in situ decomposition of paddy (rice) straw, with microbial application and without mechanical effort. “An isolate Delfitia spp, if sprayed on rice straw, decomposes it in six weeks. Efforts are being made to reduce the decomposition period to about four weeks. This approach will hold to reduce the cost of retaining the straw in the field for its benefits to the soil,” says Dr. Jaskaran, Dean of the College of Agricultural Engineering and Technology at PAU.


The politics of crop burning

While every year the fields of Punjab make it to the headlines as contributors to pollution, it is no surprise that stubble burning has also taken a political colour in the State. Opposition parties are busy blaming the ruling party. The main opposition party in the State, the Aam Aadmi Party, has declared its support for the farmers while accusing the ruling government of failing to secure farmers’ interests.

“The State government has failed to arrange for the equipment and machinery required for ploughing paddy straw into the fields. Until it makes alternative arrangements for consumption of paddy straw into the soil as per the directions of the NGT, the State government should refrain from taking action against farmers,” says Sukhpal Khaira, a senior AAP leader.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) says the Congress government has “victimised” farmers in the name of management of crop residue. “Registration of cases against six farmers for burning paddy stubble in Sangrur district is proof that the Congress government was dealing with the situation with a heavy hand despite loud claims by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh that no cases would be registered against farmers in this regard,” says SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal.

The Chief Minister has responded to the criticism by accusing the Opposition of misleading people.

As the government attempts to enforce the ban in the face of defiance, farmers have turned to guards to ensure that their work goes on unhindered. They have formed groups in villages to confront government officials from taking any legal action against those burning paddy residue. “We will not let officials enter our villages,” says Korjiwala. “We have formed groups of 12-15 farmers and whenever any of us has to burn the residue, we all get together at that field to ensure that no government official can enter the farm.”

A flicker of hope

However, there are also some farmers who have been arguing against the practice. Farmers associated with the Kheti Virasat Mission, an organisation promoting organic farming, believe that stubble burning is a temporary solution. Farmers need to understand that this practice will only damage their soil and farm in the long run and will result in loss of agriculture, they say.

“I stopped burning paddy crop four years back. While clearing the residue from the farm does add to the cost, benefits derived by not burning the crop residue are far more in the long run,” says Sukhwinder Papi, a Sangrur-based farmer who adopted organic farming around four years ago in four acres of his 10-acre holding. Papi adds that burning crop residue in the field kills friendly pests and damages soil fertility. “I have been economically managing paddy residue and using it for composting, besides as dry fodder for cattle,” he says.

But Papi’s is a lone voice. As helpless farmers team up against the ban and the State government searches for solutions, orange flames crackle on the fields and smoke reaches for the skies. The after-effects are being felt in faraway Delhi. Dew has not been a deterrent for Jagdish. The blazing sun has evaporated the dew. The task at hand over, he makes plans to sow wheat.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 1:43:49 PM |

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