Armed with microbes, India prepares to fight season of deadly farm fires
Northern India, including Delhi, is bracing for an annual spell of notorious winter smog caused by agricultural fires, but authorities say they are ready to put up a novel fight, armed with a liquid concoction swarming with microbes.
A proprietary microbial solution developed by the state-run Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), known as Pusa decomposer, is the best bet yet to prevent fires set by farmers to millions of acres of crop residue after summer paddy harvests, experts say.
Farmers are reluctant to use machines to clear rice stalks because it pushes up post-harvest costs by 11-12%, Hukum Singh, a rice-grower in Haryana said.
Last year, the Delhi government devised an elaborate plan to distribute several hundreds of litres of the solution to farmers within its territory. Official results reported to a top anti-pollution commission showed the solution was “effective”.
The Delhi government is preparing to treat at least 4,000 acres of crop residue this year too. On Monday, the Delhi government’s environment minister Gopal Rai announced it would start spraying the decomposer from October 5 to prevent stubble burning.
Farmers across Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh typically harvest paddy in October and then set their fields on fire to clear rice stalks for the next crop.
The burning of crop residue in more than seven million hectares has emerged as a deadly cause of winter pollution, resulting in weeks-long smog in New Delhi during October and November. The fires are so widespread that they are visible from space.
Westerly winds carry the smoke from burning fields towards the national capital. Air pollution in Delhi typically spikes to alarming levels, breaching the “severe” level.
Air pollution kills up to an estimated 30,000 people in Delhi annually, according to a 2015 report of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Burning paddy straw has emerged as a big problem in the past two to three decades as farmers have shifted to mechanized combine harvesters, which cut the grainy part of a rice plant, leaving the stalk intact.
A special mix of microbes in the decomposer developed by the IARI gorges on any kind of organic biomass. In the process, it turns rice stubble into fluffy manure.
“The technology has been given to several agritech firms, which will distribute it to farmers in these northern states free,” said YV Singh, IARI’s principal scientist of microbiology.
Yet, this is a modest beginning. Authorities in Punjab are preparing to use decomposer technology in about 700,000 acres to begin with, while officials have identified another 600,000 acres in Uttar Pradesh, Singh, the top IARI scientist, said. About 100,000 acres in Haryana have been targeted too.
Private firms see a big potential and are harnessing big data and artificial intelligence to bring efficiency in using the decomposer under technology-sharing deals.
Nurture.farm, a Bangalore-based agritech firm, is targeting 500,000 acres in Punjab and Haryana through its platform. The company says its platform has the potential to reach 1 million farmers.
“We are using satellite mapping to identify farms where crop burning has been carried out. Using a shared-economy platform, we are spraying farms with the decomposer for free,” said Dhruv Sawhney, the business head of nurture.farm.
For now, the cost of production of the decomposer, which is a bioenzyme, is ₹35 per acre, which is “nominal”, said Sawhney.
The decomposer comes in the form of capsules that contain an activated package of eight strains of fungi, Singh said. To prepare a solution of 25 litres, farmers need to add 5 capsules of the decomposer, along with jaggery and checkpea flour, to water. Within a week, a good layer of fungi admixture is formed. To decompose paddy stubble in one hectare, farmers need to spray 25 litres of this solution.