The smoke, spread over the skies of north India and also threatening the environs of South Asia, is billowing out of agriculture farms in the country’s food bowl states — Punjab and Haryana.
Though it’s not a new phenomenon, its harmful effects on environment, human health and productivity have raised serious concern. The governments of the two states have been trying to curb the illegal bi-annual practice, but their efforts have been dwarfed by the enormity of the problem so far.
The reason: The Centre and the state governments spring into action when the seasonal problem surfaces and then lose interest when the smog settles down. There is no long-term strategy to find a solution as farmers continue to put their paddy and wheat crop residue on fire, causing severe air pollution. Hindustan Times tries to find a way forward to help farmers adopt effective measures and tackle this major environmental menace that is playing havoc with the health of people.
Mechanisation holds the key
“A three-year plan to mechanise the entire stubble-collection process was discussed last year. It involves an expenditure of `100 crore and active support of Union ministry of environment and forests. Currently, to collect the stubble and use it for economic benefit is a huge challenge,” says BS Sidhu, Punjab agriculture commissioner. The plan envisages mechanised collection of crop residue from across the state. “We are working on a mechanism to incentivise farmers so that they feel encouraged to retain stubble for soil improvement and partly collect it for economic gains,” he said.
As per the plan, service providers are to be engaged to manage stubble and support the farmers economically. The state government feels farmers have to be given 100% subsidy without being expected to contribute anything and has conveyed the same to the Union ministry. While the plan has remained on paper so far, its implementation is going to be crucial because other initiatives of the authorities have not generated the anticipated response.
The Punjab government gives subsidy on farm implements and machinery such as the ‘happy seeder’, baler, zero till and chopper-cum-shredder to encourage farmers to stop burning their crop residue. However, not many farmers have opted for such equipment. The reasons are obvious. Reeling under crop failures and dwindling returns, farmers don’t have the financial muscle to invest and thus choose the easiest option. “The prime reason for continued stubble burning is lack of access to new-age machinery. Rural cooperative societies also don’t have such equipment in sufficient numbers. The governments need to make these available to farmers,” said Mahesh Kumar Narang, agricultural engineer, farm machinery.
In Haryana too, the response to schemes for subsidy on such advanced implements has been tepid. While some farmers have purchased these machines, most marginal and small farmers continue with the age-old practice. Suresh Gehlawat, additional director, extension, told HT that the department was trying to form groups of farmers so that they could jointly buy and use farm machinery such as happy seeders and laser land levellers. “We will also be running awareness drives to inform farmers about the adverse impact of stubble burning on environment, health and soil. The deputy commissioners have also been told to persuade farmers not to burn crop residue,” he said.
Biomass power plants: A ray of Hope
The way forward, according to experts, is to set up biomass-based power generation plants. Punjab has planned 30 paddy stubble-based power plants, mostly in paddy-growing areas of the state. There is hope of some gains for the farmers. “These plants will consume 44 lakh tonnes of paddy stubble. Already, seven such plants are operational with a total generation capacity of 62.5 megawatt,” said agriculture department joint director DR Kataria. “Collection of stubble from one acre costs `2,500 to `3,500. In case a farmer sells it, he would earn `1,000 from an acre. We will have to create more avenues,” he said. Punjab Pollution Control Board member secretary Babu Ram said technology was being developed to use paddy stubble in brick kilns. “If it works, over 1 lakh tonne stubble will get consumed in kilns,” he said.
Haryana is also planning to set up two biomass-based power plants in addition to the three existing units. While the response to the state’s plans for biomass-based units has been lukewarm so far, a renewable energy department official was hopeful that efforts would show results with more incentives to generators and farmers.
However, the two states have been facing fund crunch. Punjab has been asked to make equal contribution to subsidy that the union agriculture ministry gives for the scheme to check paddy stubble burning. “Punjab has no funds and all projects are in limbo,” says an officer.
(With Inputs from rameshinder Singh Sandhu , Ludhiana and Vishal Joshi, Karnal)