Punjab’s plan to put a stop on farm fires may get derailed

Updated on Sep 10, 2022 11:02 PM IST

Short supply of machines for in-situ management of stubble, no arrangement for ex-situ disposal, cost involved in disposing the residue without burning are major roadblocks

A hay baler at work in Chak Duhe Wala village in Muktsar, Punjab, on Saturday. (Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times)
A hay baler at work in Chak Duhe Wala village in Muktsar, Punjab, on Saturday. (Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times)
ByGurpreet Singh Nibber & Vishal Joshi, Chandigarh/bathinda

The Centre and the Punjab government are keen to bring paddy stubble fires to zero level during the upcoming kharif harvest expected to start from last week of this month, but it seems a farfetched idea. Reason: Short supply of machines for in-situ management of stubble, no arrangement for ex-situ disposal, cost involved in disposing the crop residue without burning and other practical problems.

A visit to the various villages in Punjab’s Ferozepur, Muktsar and Bathinda districts, which reported the highest number of fire farms in the 2021 kharif season, farmers said the in-situ straw management system was poorly managed.

At least 90,422 subsidised machines have been supplied to farmers between 2018 and 2021 and by the time harvest begins, they will get 32,100 more such machines.

Paddy growers Thana Singh and Malkit Singh of Muktsar’s Bhalaiana village at their farms. (Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Paddy growers Thana Singh and Malkit Singh of Muktsar’s Bhalaiana village at their farms. (Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times)

“The number of machines supplied to the farmers for in-situ management of paddy stubble is too less when compared to area (30.84 lakh hectares) under paddy cultivation and stubble produced,” said Thana Singh of Muktsar’s Bhalaiana village.

Every season, roughly 185 lakh tonnes stubble is produced along with the paddy crop, out of which only half is managed and rest is set ablaze, causing environmental hazard when a thick layer of smog engulfs the north Indian states, particularly national capital New Delhi.

Admitting that he had set stubble on fire last season, the Bhalaiana farmer justified the move. “Due to short window between paddy harvest and wheat sowing, we have no other option,” he said.

“So far, stubble burning is the only viable option. The government has to look for a permanent solution,” said Paramjit Singh, who cultivates paddy on four acres in Ferozepur’s Sherkha Wala village.

The farmers’ comments are likely to foil the government’s plans of cutting the fire incidents in the upcoming paddy harvest season to zero.

“We have plans that there will be no farm fires this time,” said director, agriculture, Gurvinder Singh, adding that 32,100 machines will be supplied to the farmers on subsidy during the harvest, for which the Centre has sanctioned 275 crore.

‘70,000 more machines needed to counter the menace’

“By our estimate, if all machines are used optimally, we would need at least 70,000 more machines to counter the menace,” he said.

The state has also spent 1,145 crore to incentivise the farmers in the past four years and 275 crore more has been allocated for the current season.

All these grants, however, have failed to bring down the stubble trouble as in 2021 alone, 71,246 farm fires were reported during the paddy harvest. However, the agriculture department said that the area under farm fires came down from 17 lakh hectares in 2020 to 14 lakh hectares in 2021.

Machines for paddy straw management

The subsidised machines include super straw management system, happy seeders, super seeders, paddy-straw choppers, reversible ploughs, zero till drill, balers, rakes and shrub master, smart seeders and spatial seed drills, crop reapers, and self-propelled reaper-cum-binders.

“The government this year allowed paddy sowing from June 20, so we would have fewer days to start wheat sowing after clearing the kharif crop from the farms,” said Budh Singh of Bhucho Mandi.

“Farmers are prepared not to burn the stubble provided the National Green Tribunal’s recommendations for clearing the fields of crop residue are implemented,” said BKU (Ugrahan) general secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokri Kalan.

Claiming that the in-situ management was not a practical solution, he said, “When wheat is sown without removing the straw, the rabi crop gets infested with pests and weeds, leading to losses.”

Farmers also rued that there was no proper arrangement for ex-situ management of stubble either.

“A few private units in south Malwa are collecting organic waste from fields for which they charge up to 1,000 per acre. But owing to inordinate delays in lifting of bales, they can’t be trusted,” said another farmer Paramjit Singh in the light of the Centre’s directions to thermal plants to use 10-15% of total fuel from paddy stubble.

Harjinder Singh of Sajdan Wala, who grows paddy on over nine acres, said instead of burning paddy residue last year, he mixed organic waste in the soil but it led to cost escalation.

“Authorities ask farmers to use organic waste as fertiliser, but when we face crop loss, there is no redressal of our issues,” he said, adding that farmers would again end up burning the stubble.

An enterprising farmer, Gurjit Singh, who has been supplying paddy stubble to a biomass power generation plant and a paper mill, said narrow lanes in villages were a common problem faced while lifting the bales, hinting at the practical issues.

“We are part of an in-situ straw solution, but at several sites, the heavy machines cannot move easily. Despite our best efforts, lifting of bales gets delayed,” Gurjit said.

Moreover, there are fewer units which have customised furnaces to consume paddy straw to energise plants and it causes demand issues, he added.

“The government must open more units in each district or ensure that warehouses stock straw so that bales are lifted from fields. When demand by these factories reduces, they drop rates and it hits the entire cycle and our business economics,” Gurjit further said.

CM slams Centre

Slamming the Centre for not ensuring a viable solution for paddy straw burning, Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann on Saturday said his government was planning to give more than one lakh machines for in-situ management of paddy straw from its own resources.

“We had offered a joint resolution to this menace, but instead of helping us the Centre dragged its feet. It doesn’t mean that it will deter us from ensuring the well-being of our farmers and protection of the environment,” he added.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022
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