ChandigarhThe plain farming chore of burning after-harvest paddy stalks as farmers prepared their fields in Punjab and Haryana for the wheat crop never headlined so much as in the past month.The swirling smoke from the fire is blamed for the thick haze that has shrouded New Delhi, where the conditions were exacerbated by fog, dust, vehicle exhaust fumes and no high wind to blow the toxic air away.The air quality in Chandigarh too has become “very poor” with the air quality index (AQI) hovering in the 301-400 range, against the acceptable limit of 100.Farmers switching to mechanical harvesters, introduced in the early 1980s, could be the genesis of the problem. The machine cuts, threshes and cleans rice from ripe paddy in a matter of hours, saving days of menial labour.Over the years, more farmers bought these machines and those who didn’t have one could get a harvester on rent for a nominal Rs 1,300, or hereabouts, for an acre.The downside is that harvesters skim from the top and leave 80% of the paddy plant — six to eight inches long — on the field. Except for the Basmati variety, the straw is useless.Unlike wheat stalks that are used as animal fodder, the paddy straw has high silica content that animals can’t digest. And Basmati with its low silica content is grown only in 450,000 acres.Since farmers need to sow wheat within a fortnight of harvesting paddy, they burn the straw, or paraali, to save time, labour and money.About 3 million acres are cultivated for paddy in Punjab and 20 million tonnes of stubble are generated every year, said Jasbir Singh Bains, the state’s director of agriculture.The spike in stubble burning is blamed on the PUSA variety of rice, which is harvested late.Authorities took drastic measures to check the smoke from the country’s food bowl such as fining farmers — up to Rs 5,000 — who were found setting fields afire. Punjab government data show 2,338 farmers were fined so far and Rs 65.92 lakh collected in fines.According to the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre, instances of paddy stubble burning were less this year compared to the past.Manjeet Singh Makkar, who heads the farm machinery and power engineering department at Punjab Agricultural University, suggested three solutions.His first suggestion is the straw chopper-cum-spreader. This machine chops the stubble and mixes it in the soil either with the help of water or a rotavator, a tool that has a steel shaft and blades and can be fitted to a tractor.The second suggestion is a straw management system and a “happy seeder”. The first can be fitted to a combine harvester. It cuts the straw into small pieces and scatters it evenly. Next, a “happy seeder” mounted on a tractor can be used to sow wheat and put the cut straw over the area as mulch, which improves soil fertility. The two machines cost Rs 1.25 lakh each.The third solution is a baler, which bales the straw. These can be used in power plants or cardboard factories.Punjab agriculture director Bains said the state sought a central grant of Rs 900 crore for a crop residue management project this May. The state proposes to offer farmers 40% subsidy on balers, rakes, rotavators and “happy seeders”. The Centre released 48.5 crore.These machines require an investment of more than Rs 2 lakh, but small and medium farmers don’t have the money. Most are reeling from debts. The cheapest machine, a cutter-shredder, costs Rs 45,000 or more. Use of farm labour is the most expensive at Rs 6,000 an acre.“Given a choice between a box of matchsticks and machinery worth Rs 2 lakh, what will you choose?” asked Billa Singh, a farmer in Phagwara.But Navtej Singh Bains, the director of research at Punjab Agricultural University, believes new machinery is the only way out.“If every village procures one or two happy seeders, the problem will be solved. Farmers are now renting these machines for Rs 1,300 an acre. The cost is bound to fall if more farmers buy the seeders,” he said.