(This story was first published on 5 November 2019 and is being republished from The Quint's archives in light of the recent inauguration of the smog tower in Delhi and the Uttar Pradesh government announcing that it will withdraw cases of stubble burning against farmers.)
Video Editor: Varun Sharma
No matter where in Delhi you go, you can’t see much clearly – toxic smog has enveloped the national capital – so much so that a health emergency has been declared.
Many have questioned the role of Punjab and Haryana farmers, who set their fields on fire to clear residual stubble, in the hazardous air quality. Why do the farmers burn their crop stubble, year after year, and how much are they contributing to the pollution?
The Quint spoke to farmers in Punjab in order to answer some frequently asked questions.
Is the air pollution caused by farmers in Punjab and Haryana setting their fields on fire?
Air pollution in Delhi is caused by many factors. While stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana accounts for about 17-44 percent of Delhi’s pollution, other factors such as industrial pollution, construction waste, and weather patterns also play a role in making the national capital’s air toxic.
Why do the farmers set their fields on fire?
Stubble burning has many reasons – in early days, farmers used to harvest their crops manually ie, cut crops with their own hands, which meant the crop residue – the stalk left behind on the ground – was low in height.
However, with the coming of combine harvester (crop harvesting machines) in the 1980s, the height of the crop residue increased as machines cut the crop at a much higher level than manual harvesting.
Further, in 2009, Punjab and then Haryana pushed back the dates of sowing, which resulted in delayed harvest. This left farmers little time between harvesting paddy and sowing the next crop, mainly wheat.
Hence, crop burning emerged as a cheap and convenient method of clearing stubble before the sowing of the next crop.
Government gives 50 percent subsidy on stubble management machines. Why don’t farmers use them?
Most farmers say that even after government subsidy, the machines are beyond their means. For instance, a happy seeder machine (which cuts stubble, sows seeds and covers it back with stubble) sold by a government empanelled manufacturer costs Rs 1,70,000. After the subsidy, the cost reduces to Rs 65-70,000.
The subsidy thus, according to farmers, is ineffective as happy seeder machines manufactured by other companies in the market are often cheaper than the ones on which the subsidy is applicable. With or without the subsidy, the machines are too expensive for farmers.
Moreover, 70 horsepower tractors are required to operate happy seeder machines, which cost Rs 6-7 lakh. The average farmer in Punjab has tractors with 40-45 horsepower and can’t afford to purchase more expensive ones.
What about 80 percent subsidy to farmer organisations?
In reality, villages have only one such association which can buy two-three machines and one powerful tractor – which can drive the machines. Not only is the number of machines insufficient to clear stubble within fifteen days but their rent is also too high for farmers to afford.
What is the solution?
By giving farmers a compensation of Rs 200/quintal, they can hire labourers to cut the leftover stubble. However, this alone will not work. If all paddy farmers employ labourers to cut crop residue, about 20 million tonnes of stubble will be generated.
Thus, the answer lies in developing industries that help in processing stubble in bio-energy power plants, waste to utility processing factories, and so on and so forth.