With Winter Ahead, How Do We Tackle the Stubble Burning Issue?

What is stubble burning, and can the problem ever be resolved? We answer some basic questions.

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
Burning of rice crop residue in Punjab.
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The Supreme Court on Friday, 16 October, appointed Justice (Retd) Madan B Lokur, a former judge of the apex court, to act as a one-man monitoring committee to prevent stubble burning in states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh that leads to air pollution in Delhi.

The Lokur panel shall submit its report fortnightly to the apex court, the SC said, reported news agency PTI.

The decision comes in light of winter approaching and concerns once again arising of the usual – smog choking the capital city. There is certainly an urgent need to deal with the issue of stubble burning by farmers in nearby states. Keeping this in mind, the National Cadet Corps, the National Service Scheme and Bharat Scouts will be deployed for assisting panel in monitoring stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and UP, PTI further reported.

But can this issue even be resolved, and what can the government do to curb it? We dive into some of these basic questions.

With Winter Ahead, How Do We Tackle the Stubble Burning Issue?

  1. 1. What Is Stubble Burning?

    Stubble burning is, quite simply, the act of removing paddy crop residue from the field to sow wheat. It’s usually required in areas that use the ‘combine harvesting’ method which leaves crop residue behind. Now, what is combine harvesting?

    Combines are machines that harvest, thresh i.e separate the grain, and also clean the separated grain, all at once. The problem, however, is that the machine doesn’t cut close enough to the ground, leaving stubble behind that the farmer has no use for. There is pressure on the farmer to sow the next crop in time for it to achieve a full yield. The quickest and cheapest solution, therefore, is to clear the field by burning the stubble.

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  2. 2. But Is Burning the Only Solution?

    Not really, but it is the easiest and cheapest method available to farmers as of now. But the situation isn’t so grim after all. There are other options we can look at.

    The most efficient technology to counter crop burning at the moment, seems to be the Turbo Happy Seeder (THS). The THS is basically a machine mounted on a tractor that not only cuts and uproots the stubble, but can also drill wheat seeds on the soil that has just been cleared up. The straw is simultaneously thrown over the sown seeds to form a mulch cover.

    The THS can also be fitted with the Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS) that spreads the straw evenly.

    Expand
  3. 3. Can We Find Other Use for the Stubble?

    Ideally, we should. Traditionally, crop residue had a lot of benefits like thatching, or making beds for livestock and cattle. However, growing technology has found more efficient alternatives to this.

    “The first step to curb crop burning is to find uses for the stubble,” said Anumita Roychowdhury of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to Down To Earth.

    One option is to produce biomass with the residue to generate power. The straw can similarly be used to make pellets that serve as the sub-strata for mushroom cultivation, but the problem is not in finding alternatives to paddy straw, as there are many.

    The real issue is who cuts and collects the crop residue, and then takes responsibility for transporting them? As of now, the farmer has no incentive to take the pains of extracting crop residue from the earth, Down To Earth reports.

    Expand
  4. 4. But Surely All These Alternatives Come at a Cost, Right?

    The THS costs approximately Rs 1.3 lakh and the S-SMS is about Rs 1.2 lakh. Then there is the cost of the combine, which is upwards of Rs 18 lakh, but the farmer does not have to own them. Just as combines are, these machines can also be used on a custom-hiring basis.

    Other alternatives, like residue incorporation costs 20 percent more than simply burning the stubble, while fully removing the residue costs 34 percent more than burning, according to Express Tribune. So where is the incentive for the farmer not to resort to the easiest option?

    Expand
  5. 5. But Why Is This Only a Problem in the Northern States?

    India relies on its northern states of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for wheat.

    Now, states in the south use combine harvesting too. But the clinching difference is that they don’t have the urgency to remove the stubble to make it ready for the next crop.

    A farmer burns paddy crop residue in south east Punjab.
    A farmer burns paddy crop residue in south east Punjab.
    (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

    To sow wheat right after paddy, the field has to be harvested and readied for the next crop. In the Punjab-Haryana-UP belt, the crucial time for the wheat crop to mature is in mid-April, when the temperature is about to cross 35 degree celsius. For the wheat crop to reach full maturity and give maximum yield by then, the farmer has no option but to sow the crop latest by 15 November, so that it grows for a full 140-150 day duration.

    Add to this complication the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act 2009 – Punjab’s water-saving law – which bans sowing of paddy before 15 May and transplanting it before 15 June. This leaves the farmer with very little time to sow and reap paddy, and then ready the field for wheat in just about 20 days.

    Expand
  6. 6. So Won't Reducing Paddy Production Reduce Stubble Too?

    Yes, that is simple math, but given that rice is a lucrative crop, how do we go about doing this? The answer is to give incentive to farmers to grow other crops.

    Farm labourers cultivate paddy.
    Farm labourers cultivate paddy.
    (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

    The Centre and state governments could adopt methods to incentivise farmers, rather than penalising them. If production of other crops, like maize, are made more lucrative, then farmers will switch to growing those.

    Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers’ Commission in an article for The Print, suggests that the government allow production of ethanol from maize. Then paddy farmers have a reason to switch to maize, or at least devote half of their time to cultivating maize.

    Expand
  7. 7. So Can We Really Blame the Farmers?

    Clearly farmers have little choice but to burn the stubble, given the pressure under which they have to sow the next crop.

    The National Green Tribune recommends penalising farmers who burn stubble. Punjab has attempted this, but to no avail. Stubble burning continues, and disgruntled farmers – who are already under debt – refuse to pay fines in the state. Up till the April-May wheat harvesting season this year, farmers in Punjab owed the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) fines up to Rs 61.32 lakh. Of this, only Rs 18 lakh was recovered, the Indian Express reported. Now, another harvest season is upon us, but not much seems to have changed.

    So is simply banning stubble burning the answer? Or do we need to offer farmers alternatives? Without a doubt, the answer is the latter.

    (This piece was first published in November 2017 and has been reposted by The Quint from its archives in light of the Supreme Court appointing a one-man monitoring committee to prevent stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.)

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    Expand

What Is Stubble Burning?

Stubble burning is, quite simply, the act of removing paddy crop residue from the field to sow wheat. It’s usually required in areas that use the ‘combine harvesting’ method which leaves crop residue behind. Now, what is combine harvesting?

Combines are machines that harvest, thresh i.e separate the grain, and also clean the separated grain, all at once. The problem, however, is that the machine doesn’t cut close enough to the ground, leaving stubble behind that the farmer has no use for. There is pressure on the farmer to sow the next crop in time for it to achieve a full yield. The quickest and cheapest solution, therefore, is to clear the field by burning the stubble.

But Is Burning the Only Solution?

Not really, but it is the easiest and cheapest method available to farmers as of now. But the situation isn’t so grim after all. There are other options we can look at.

The most efficient technology to counter crop burning at the moment, seems to be the Turbo Happy Seeder (THS). The THS is basically a machine mounted on a tractor that not only cuts and uproots the stubble, but can also drill wheat seeds on the soil that has just been cleared up. The straw is simultaneously thrown over the sown seeds to form a mulch cover.

The THS can also be fitted with the Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS) that spreads the straw evenly.

Can We Find Other Use for the Stubble?

Ideally, we should. Traditionally, crop residue had a lot of benefits like thatching, or making beds for livestock and cattle. However, growing technology has found more efficient alternatives to this.

“The first step to curb crop burning is to find uses for the stubble,” said Anumita Roychowdhury of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to Down To Earth.

One option is to produce biomass with the residue to generate power. The straw can similarly be used to make pellets that serve as the sub-strata for mushroom cultivation, but the problem is not in finding alternatives to paddy straw, as there are many.

The real issue is who cuts and collects the crop residue, and then takes responsibility for transporting them? As of now, the farmer has no incentive to take the pains of extracting crop residue from the earth, Down To Earth reports.

But Surely All These Alternatives Come at a Cost, Right?

The THS costs approximately Rs 1.3 lakh and the S-SMS is about Rs 1.2 lakh. Then there is the cost of the combine, which is upwards of Rs 18 lakh, but the farmer does not have to own them. Just as combines are, these machines can also be used on a custom-hiring basis.

Other alternatives, like residue incorporation costs 20 percent more than simply burning the stubble, while fully removing the residue costs 34 percent more than burning, according to Express Tribune. So where is the incentive for the farmer not to resort to the easiest option?

But Why Is This Only a Problem in the Northern States?

India relies on its northern states of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for wheat.

Now, states in the south use combine harvesting too. But the clinching difference is that they don’t have the urgency to remove the stubble to make it ready for the next crop.

A farmer burns paddy crop residue in south east Punjab.
A farmer burns paddy crop residue in south east Punjab.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

To sow wheat right after paddy, the field has to be harvested and readied for the next crop. In the Punjab-Haryana-UP belt, the crucial time for the wheat crop to mature is in mid-April, when the temperature is about to cross 35 degree celsius. For the wheat crop to reach full maturity and give maximum yield by then, the farmer has no option but to sow the crop latest by 15 November, so that it grows for a full 140-150 day duration.

Add to this complication the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act 2009 – Punjab’s water-saving law – which bans sowing of paddy before 15 May and transplanting it before 15 June. This leaves the farmer with very little time to sow and reap paddy, and then ready the field for wheat in just about 20 days.

So Won't Reducing Paddy Production Reduce Stubble Too?

Yes, that is simple math, but given that rice is a lucrative crop, how do we go about doing this? The answer is to give incentive to farmers to grow other crops.

Farm labourers cultivate paddy.
Farm labourers cultivate paddy.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Centre and state governments could adopt methods to incentivise farmers, rather than penalising them. If production of other crops, like maize, are made more lucrative, then farmers will switch to growing those.

Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers’ Commission in an article for The Print, suggests that the government allow production of ethanol from maize. Then paddy farmers have a reason to switch to maize, or at least devote half of their time to cultivating maize.

So Can We Really Blame the Farmers?

Clearly farmers have little choice but to burn the stubble, given the pressure under which they have to sow the next crop.

The National Green Tribune recommends penalising farmers who burn stubble. Punjab has attempted this, but to no avail. Stubble burning continues, and disgruntled farmers – who are already under debt – refuse to pay fines in the state. Up till the April-May wheat harvesting season this year, farmers in Punjab owed the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) fines up to Rs 61.32 lakh. Of this, only Rs 18 lakh was recovered, the Indian Express reported. Now, another harvest season is upon us, but not much seems to have changed.

So is simply banning stubble burning the answer? Or do we need to offer farmers alternatives? Without a doubt, the answer is the latter.

(This piece was first published in November 2017 and has been reposted by The Quint from its archives in light of the Supreme Court appointing a one-man monitoring committee to prevent stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.)

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