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The right alternative

india Updated: Nov 22, 2012 23:04 IST

The smog that nearly choked Delhi in November was caused due to the burning of post-harvest rice stalks in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh. Every year, rice is harvested using combine harvesters, which leaves a residue in the field. Earlier, harvesting was done by hand and the people who worked on the fields would take out the stalks and use them as food for animals.

This practice is now done by using tractors. The use of harvesters leads to a problem: the seeder machines that plant wheat in November get clogged by the residue and so farmers burn the residue, the cause of the smog, before attempting to plant wheat.

But a new machine — Happy Seeder (HS) — can help farmers to plant wheat seed without it getting clogged by the residue. It is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch. This helps in preserving soil moisture and conserving nutrients.

But is it worth promoting? To answer this, one of us, surveyed 92 farmers in Punjab who used HS last year in some parts of their land, while using the conventional machine on the rest of the farm.

The average yield of wheat on plots that used HS was 43.3 quintals/hectare while the average yield on the conventional plots was 43.8 quintals/hectare. So it does work.

Is HS cost-effective? The average cost of preparing a field for sowing wheat using HS was Rs. 6,225/hectare while it was Rs. 7,288/hectare using conventional methods. The conventional method is costlier because those fields were ploughed, which is not the case when HS is used. The per-hectare profit from wheat when HS is used is Rs. 40,548, about Rs. 500/ha more than the Rs. 40,024 profit from conventionally tilled plots. Thus, the new technology is profitable.

Other ways of stopping farmers from burning smog — putting a ban on burning and appeals from government officials — have been tried in Punjab and Haryana for a few years now. But they have failed because farmers don’t have any cost-effective alternative and they are politically too powerful to be forced.

A major government push to popularise HS (perhaps 50% subsidy) could lead to the adoption of the new machine.

Ridhima Gupta is a PhD student in economics and E Somanathan is Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. The views expressed by the authors are personal.