The stubble trouble: Desperate farmers pick easiest option

  • Raghbir Singh Brar and Navrajdeep Singh, Hindustan Times, Faridkot/Bathinda
  • Updated: Nov 07, 2015 10:16 IST
Short of time and money to clear their fields for the next crop, cultivators opt for the banned practice of stubble burning; the absence of incentives as well as access to agricultural equipment for straw management also influences their decision. (Bharat Bhushan/HT)

Jagroop Singh owns seven acres of agricultural land in a village of Faridkot district. All of it was under the long-duration paddy (PUSA 44) harvested on October 17. He then had barely 10 days to prepare his field for wheat sowing.

The seasoned cultivator did not think twice before putting a matchstick to his paddy crop residue littered all over his field. The stubble went up in flames within a few hours. “If I had not burnt the paddy stubble completely, I could not have prepared my field for the next crop at all,” he said.

The burning of crop residue is an illegal activity with a provision for action against farmers violating the ban. There are penalties and risk of prosecution as well. Also, multiple studies have reported the adverse impact of continuous burning on the condition of soil and, therefore, future productivity. “Continuous burning of straw leads to a reduction of nitrogen and carbon as well as soil aggregation,” according to a study on soil and tillage research conducted in 2007.

But Jagroop and most other paddy growers in Punjab and Haryana, who are already working under severe economic constraints with failing productivity and dwindling returns, do not give a hoot to the ban imposed by the state governments, setting on fire crop residue post-harvest over lakhs of acres of agricultural land to clear their fields for the next crop. And, they have been emboldened by the reluctance of the Akali-BJP government — which is under fire for its mishandling of the whitefly attack on the cotton crop, a crash in market rates of basmati and desecration of Guru Granth Sahib — to act against erring farmers.


Their reasoning is simple: paddy stubble burning is the least-costly option available to them, while the straw management methods recommended by the state authorities and agriculture experts are “impractical” and time-consuming.

“I have to prepare my field in time for sowing the next crop. There is no way to collect paddy stubble from the entire field and dispose it of in any way,” said Jagroop.

Surinder Singh (name changed), who owns 10 acres in Faridkot district’s Sarawan village and has also set ablaze his paddy and basmati crop residue, echoes Jagroop’s view. “Burning of crop residue is a compulsion for us. Most farmers, especially those with small land holdings, do not have implements and farm machinery required to remove the crop residue,” he said. He put the cost of preparing the field for sowing through ploughing and planking at `2,000 to `2,500 per acre.

There are also farmers such as Gurdit Singh (name changed) of Devi Wala village who first chop the paddy straw before setting it on fire and then use zero-tillage technology of wheat sowing to cut their costs.

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MS Kang, former vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, said farmers were burning crop residue because not much time was available to them between two crops. “The fact that wheat sowing has to be completed by November-end to avoid a decline in yield cannot be ignored. This leaves them with very less time to clear the field for sowing. Therefore, they opt for burning,” he said.

PAU additional director, extension, Gurmeet Singh Buttar, however, attributed widespread burning of crop residue to the mindset of farmers. “Despite alternatives and their environmental benefits, farmers resort to stubble burning as they know it is the easiest method and helps them quickly prepare the field for the next crop within a short span,” he said. But that’s exactly where the nub of the problem lies.


Despite the talk of alternatives, nothing much has been done by the governments of the two food-bowl states (Punjab and Haryana) to ensure easy access to agricultural implements and machinery such as the ‘happy seeder’, baler and chopper-cum-shredder required for proper crop residue management.

“There is a big mismatch between the availability of agricultural machinery and requirement. These are out of reach of most farmers. Wherever they are available, costs are high. Also, there are downsides of each of these recommended technologies. Then, stubble is not of much use as there are no biomass plants in most districts,” said a Faridkot farmer.

Another farmer, Sukhjinder Singh Brar of Niamiwala village (Faridkot), said though there was subsidy available on paddy balers, zero tills, seeders and other farm equipment, most farmers were still not in a position to afford such machinery. “The government must give incentives to farmers to stop crop residue burning,” he added.

The scenario is not quite different in Haryana, where most farming families find the cost of such equipment prohibitive. The happy seeder, for instance, costs about `1.25 lakh and is being currently used to cover only about 10,000 hectares of area in the state. Similarly, while wheat is sown over 25 lakh hectares, the zero till machine, costing about `45,000, is being used in about two lakh hectares.

Read: Punjab farmers play with fire, shun ban

“This machine sows seeds, but does not completely chop off the paddy straw which falls off in about a month’s time. However, the farmers prefer to burn the stubble,” according to additional director, extension, Suresh Gehlawat. Then, the big plans on biomass-based power plants have not taken off. The state has only three operational plants with a total capacity of 23 megawatt.

With inputs from Rajesh Moudgil, Chandigarh; and Rameshinder Singh Sandhu, Ludhiana

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