(This story was first published on 5 November 2019 and is being republished from The Quint's archives in light of the Uttar Pradesh government announcing that it will withdraw cases of stubble burning against farmers.)
Rajeev Sharma – a farmer based in Ambala’s Narayangarh block in Haryana – had put in an application for a happy seeder machine on 30 September earlier this year.
“I was told by the officials to first form a cooperative of around 15 people. Then, they kept rejecting my application on some ground or the other,” says Rajeev who claims that only two happy seeder machines are currently available per block in his neighbouring area. Which means that for 1,000 farmers in a single village only two machines are available.
He still hasn’t received a happy seeder machine, but he isn’t inclined on following up with the ‘babus’ anymore.
A happy seeder is a machine that helps farmers get rid of the crop residue without burning the straw. Hence it is considered the answer to the issue of stubble burning that is one of the biggest contributions to pollution in and around Delhi-NCR.
The happy seeder not only removes residue but also allows the farmer to seed the new crop without involving manual labour. It is usually mounted on the back of a tractor. Typically, in the month of October, a farmer sows wheat while removing paddy straw in the process.
However, despite the government subsidising happy seeders, not many farmers want to use the machine. Here’s why:
1) ‘Single Happy Seeder Can’t Till Land Beyond 8 Acres Per Day’
According to Haryana-based farm activist Ramandeep Singh Mann, happy seeders are definitely an ‘alternative’ to stubble burning, but it comes with its problems.
Going by the usual pace at which the machine works, Mann estimates that a single happy seeder can’t till land beyond 10 acres on a daily basis when used for 8-10 hours at a stretch.
“Compared to the area of land under cultivation there are probably just one-third happy seeders available,” Mann tells The Quint over the phone.
2) Govt Subsidy Not Enough
The cost per machine is Rs 1.5 lakh. Even though the government has offered a 50 percent subsidy on the purchase of happy seeders by an individual and 80 percent subsidy when it is bought by a cooperative, the machine is still unaffordable. At 50 percent subsidy for an individual, the farmer is expected to pay Rs 75,000 from his pocket.
Seventy-six-year-old Balbir Singh Rajewal, who is based in Ludhiana’s Samrala and represents the Bhartiya Kisan Union, says the government is trying to increase the financial burden of farmers. He says:
“Ninety percent farmers in Punjab have less than one hectare of land. If a machine costs lakhs, you have to understand that farmers don’t have this kind of purchasing capacity. He will have to take loans for that also.”
Even though Rajeev was willing to bear the financial burden of buying the machine, he says he wasn’t able to procure the machine.
“Most of the farmers are not even able to buy happy seeder. How are we expected to arrange this kind of money? And full payment is mandatory before you can avail the benefit of subsidy. This is a crucial time for us because the sowing season of wheat is on. Now what can we do? Aag lagani padti hai (Have to set the stubble on fire).”Rajeev Sharma
Compared to Rs 565 crore spent by the Centre on subsidy for happy seeders in 2018, the amount spent on subsidy in 2019 was pegged at Rs 588 crore, which translates to a measly increase of 4 percent.
Even the option of renting the machine is not feasible.
“About 68 percent farmers in Haryana and Punjab are small farmers. If you take the machine on rent, it costs Rs 4,000 per acre. So small and marginal farmers can’t afford the machine.”Ramandeep Singh Mann, Farm Activist
While Haryana has 16.17 lakh farmers, according to a recent report by the Ministry of Agriculture a total of 2,376 happy seeders were distributed in the state by the government in 2018.
3) Potato Growers Can’t Rely on Machine
Potato belongs to the tuber family. It means that the vegetable grows below the ground level and needs enough space. Any obstruction posed by remnants of paddy straw can be harmful as it makes the crop susceptible to attack by pests.
Since the happy seeders are not able to remove straw completely, potato growers are assured only after the straw has been reduced to ash.
“Those farmers who are potato growers can’t go for the fresh crop without burning. There are limited machines available and they take a lot of time.”Rajeev Sharma
Even for wheat, Sharma claims that if they rely on happy seeder, it has been noticed that wheat plants coming out eventually are shorter in height.
4) Big Tractors Not Available
Not all the tractors are capable of pulling a happy seeder along, only those with capacity of 65 horse power would be able to drag an additional device mounted on hind side.
And here lies the catch. In a state like Punjab, not enough big tractors are available. Majority of tractors have a capacity of 30-40 horse power.
So, if a farmer has to use the happy seeder machine, he will not just have take the machine on rent, but also hire a tractor that can pull it.
“Shortage of big tractors poses an additional financial burden on farmers as they are forced to get that on rent as well.”Ramandeep Singh Mann, Farm Activist
5) Moisture in Stubble Forces Farmers to Partially Burn It
Stubble is laden with moisture and often chokes the happy seeder after covering a distance of 15-20 metres. Thus, the farmer has to opt for partial burning so that the straw is dry enough and doesn’t stick in the machine.
“There are few practical problems with the machine but then this is also a hit and miss trial phase.”Ramandeep Singh Mann, Farm Activist
Some farm leaders blame the machine for low yield of crops. Balbir Singh Rajewal from the Bhartiya Kisan Union says, “These machines were rejected by the Punjab Agriculture University when they were first introduced. Now the same machines are being deemed as efficient. When you are using the same machine to sow seeds as well as removing straw, seeding is not done properly thus affecting the yields.”
Chandigarh-based agriculture expert Devinder Sharma further says there are more disadvantages of over-mechanisation in a state like Punjab reeling under the stress of farmer suicides.
“The machine has utility only for one month after harvest season and it remains idle the rest of the year. Instead of giving subsidy on a machine, why can’t the government offer stimulus package, at Rs 3,000 per acre, for the removal of straw manually,” he says.
Since cost is the biggest hurdle when it comes to using the happy seeders, Sharma argues, the choice of using manual labour, or machine for that matter, should rest with the farmer.