Extending incentives to farmers can curb the menace of stubble burning
Any paddy harvest season brings along the stubble burning issue. For over a decade now, ever since paddy stubble fires in Punjab and for that matter in the adjoining States of the capital city became hot issues, with farmers being blamed for the notorious air pollution in New Delhi, the struggle to contain the fires still continues.
While the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has claimed that farm fires have come down in the past three years, more than 2,704 incidents of stubble burning have been recorded till October 25 this season. While a number of FIRs have been filed and fines imposed, the menace of farm fire continues unabated. Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) have been asked to make ‘red entries’ in the revenue records of farmers, who continue to defy the directive not to burn paddy biomass.
In neighbouring Haryana, news reports are that stubble burning incidents have come down significantly from the 3,661 instances recorded last year. This season has so far seen 714 cases since October 22, and going by this trend a total of around 1,000 fires are expected. This is quite a climb down.
In Uttar Pradesh, the State government says fire incidents have been reduced by 65.5 per cent in the past five years.
But there is a catch here. When journalists say that the number of fires have come down based on the satellite data that is made available, they do not realise that what matters more is the area that has been saved from fires. The reduction in the number of fires does not automatically relate to a sizeable or in an equally proportionate manner a reduction in the area on which the stubbles are burnt.
For instance, Punjab claimed last year (2022 crop harvest season) that the number of fires had come down by 30 per cent in farm fires, the area that was actually saved from farm fires was only 1.5 per cent. It only shows how deceptive can be the farm fire reduction data.
The problem is that most journalists have no idea about the rural areas, and it is a fact that a majority rarely venture out of the cities. Therefore they find it convenient to quote the satellite data about the reduction in the number of fires. No wonder, crop fires rage on.
In the past few weeks, there have news reports of a significant drop in the number of fires. Again, these reports give an impression as if the problem of stubble burning has been taken care of to a large extent. But what is not being realised is that in Punjab, which is expecting the paddy crop to be around 190 lakh tonnes this year, only about 65 to 70 lakh tonnes of the harvest have arrived in the mandis so far, which means that about 65 per cent of the standing crop is yet to be harvested.
In other words, the next two weeks are going to be crucial as far as stubble burning is concerned. With paddy harvest increasing in the days to come, a rise in stubble burning can be expected.
This year’s delay in harvesting can be attributed to the heavy rains and the floods that Punjab encountered during the cropping season (in some areas, farmers faced floods twice in the season) that only about 35 per cent of the crop has been harvested so far.
Why Haryana seems to be doing a lot better is because while Punjab has about 32 lakh hectares under paddy, the area under paddy in Haryana is about 50 per cent less, and a significant proportion is under basmati, whose stubbles are normally not burnt.
Interestingly, in the districts adjoining the NCR boundary, there is no stubble burning. In fact, the air quality over New Delhi is much worse than the air quality in the neighbouring districts of Haryana. This only shows that the Haryana districts adjoining New Delhi are faced with increasing pollution that is coming from the capital city and not vice versa.
Let us not forget that Punjab alone produces about 200 lakh tonnes of paddy stubbles on an average. This year, the figures may be higher given the increased expectation of a record harvest. Such a huge quantity of paddy straw cannot be managed by the government as well as the private industry. Farmers have been saying for years now that they will be able to manage the paddy straw by in-situ management, without putting it to fire, provided they are paid an incentive to do so.
Former Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh had asked for Rs 2,000 crore from the Centre to provide an incentive of Rs 1,000 per acre to farmers. The present Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann had also asked for Rs 1,500 crore. The Centre did not accept either of the requests.
Instead, the Centre is pushing for more machines to take care of the stubbles. Already Punjab has been provided 1.37-lakh machines (including 20,000 to be added this year) at a subsidy. Since these machines are at best used for three weeks in a year, they mostly lie idle for the rest of the period. Given that Punjab already has over five lakh tractors (along with the accessories) against the requirement of one lakh tractors, Punjab is fast turning into a junkyard for machines.
I though the policy makers should have cautioned against another problem that the State will face in the coming years. Everyone is happy selling the machines.
The problem of stubble burning has arisen after the Combine Harvesters appeared on the scene. There are about 15,000 Combine Harvesters in Punjab, of which only 6,000 have installed Straw Management System (SMS) technology. But farmers do not prefer the SMS because of additional costs plus more diesel use. Similarly, 13,000 Happy Seeder machines that were initially provided have now become redundant because farmers prefer the next generation Super Seeder machines. An IndiaSpend report (Scroll.in Mar 21, 2019) draws out a comparison of the health and environmental costs arising from farm fires that every policy maker must read, and I hope the report at the same time serves as an eye-opener.
It says crop burning annually leaves behind a loss of Rs two lakh crore in terms of environmental and health expenses. This loss, if recovered, is good enough to pay for 700 All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). If that be so, I don’t see the rationale of denying Punjab a grant of Rs 2,000 crore per year if it can help farmers take care of the gigantic problem the society is faced with.
Policy makers need to wake up. Coercion against farmers is not the solution to curb stubble burning. Standing with them, and providing them with an appropriate incentive is the way forward. To make it more effective, distribute the incentive amount before the harvest, and not after the crop has been harvested.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)