Stubble Burning

In the coming few days, India’s northern region in general and New Delhi in particular, is likely to become the world’s most polluted places, because of the vast number of farmers majorly in the states of Punjab and Haryana, and also in Uttar Pradesh and Uttrakhand are likely to carry on with their annual ritual of setting fire to the paddy straw or stubble, even though they are well aware of the environmental and health problem it causes. But these farmers too are not all in the negative.

What is Stubble Burning?

Stubble Burning in the most literal and simple sense means burning of the straw stubble left behind after the harvesting of the crop, i.e. wheat or any other crop, is completed. But in regards to the issue in our country, it is exclusively limited to paddy or rice. 

The practice of Stubble Burning was widespread across the globe until the 1990s when the Government of various Nation-states started taking cognisance of the issue and started restricting the same.

This method is generally required in the areas where ‘combine harvesting’ is practised, which leaves a residue behind, which forces the farmers to take some steps to get rid of it, and majority of the farmers in the aforementioned states use the method of Stubble Burning.

Why is it so widespread?

It is widespread in the areas where combine harvesting is used. The combine while harvesting the crop does not cut the crop close enough from the ground, thus leaving behind the stubble. The majority of the crops in our country is harvested with the help of combines, so why is stubble issue only in the areas of Northern India, i.e., Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttrakhand?

The primary reason is that the farmers have very less time between harvesting the paddy and sowing of the ‘rabi’ crop, wheat. The harvesting of the paddy has to end by 15th November and the wheat needs to be seeded to the soil maximum by 22nd November so that the crop can receive the complete growth period of 120 – 150 days before its harvest season in April – May. 

The other equally important reason is that the method of stubble burning is very speedy, cheap and effective. As the farmers do not have much time to use the other alternative methods of happy seeders or super straw management system, which are time consuming. It is also very cost-effective as it takes just a match stick to burn the entire stubble whereas the alternative methods adds to the cost of purchasing machinery, fuel, labour and transportation. This hits the most to the marginalised farmers who are already under the enormous burden of loans. Additionally, according to some farmers, stubble burning also kills the pests and the other organisms in the soils which is not dealt with might effect the upcoming crops. 

The farmers in the other regions do not have this issue because they do not have to deal with such a short transition period between two crops, as in the Northern areas. They have sufficiently more time to get rid of the stubble via the other time consuming alternative methods.

Different Countries’ Views

Different countries across the planet have taken different views towards stubble burning. The countries where this method is permitted;

  • Australia, stubble burning is not preferred by the farmers but is permitted and it even recommended in certain circumstances.
  • The United States, it is fairly common in the mid-western states.
  • France, it is fairly common there as well.
  • Canada, it is not explicitly allowed, but can be practiced after acquiring a permit. 

The countries where it is banned;

  • England and Wales, it is effectively prohibited since 1993.
  • China, there is a government ban on stubble burning, however the practice remains fairly common.

Government Measures

The Centre and the State Government are trying to effectively stop this issue. The Centre has even provided with more than Rs. 1,000 crore to both the states to curb the issue, but sadly the measures taken by the government are not proving to be enough to restrain the menace. The air quality has again started to get polluted and people have started having trouble breathing in the National Capital, though currently on a small scale.

After the orders by the NGT, the States have started working proactively and are providing subsidies upto 50% to the farmers to purchase the alternative method machinery and are even creating awareness to shift to different methods. Though the Government is providing subsidies upto 50%, still the farmers are reluctant to claim it as they are not willing to buy the extra equipment, however cheap it maybe. They do not want the added cost on their already marginal incomes. Many farmers want to switch to the alternative methods, but owing to the limited sources they are not able to do so, even after the support of the government. And even if some farmers garner the courage to buy the machinery required, they are afraid that they will not be able to claim the subsidy and even if they are able to, it will take a lot of time which will further increase the debt of the already debt-ridden farmers.

The Punjab Government has said that about 25,000 straw management machines have been dispatched, but still it is an inadequate amount according to some estimates. The need of the hour is to provide incentive to the farmers to switch to other methods. Currently, the farmer is looking at the added cost which he will incur if he has to switch to the alternative method. Thus the government has to incentivize the switch rather than penalizing them. For example, a minister of the Punjab Government has said that the farmers can grow maize instead of paddy which has a higher MSP, which will help the farmers’ finances.

Another view taken by the farmers is paying fine and using stubble burning method is far cheaper than to shift to other methods. Thus the government has to make the farmers change their methods by incentive and not by coercion, which currently the government seems to not succeeding in. Another reason for the low result of the government efforts this year is the late rain showers, which have postponed the harvesting of the crops for about 15 days, thus shrinking the already short transition period.

Environmental Side-Effects

There are many side effects of stubble burning which saw the limelight last year, and to name a few:

  • Open burning of husk is of incomplete combustion in nature. Hence large amount of toxic pollutants are emitted in the atmosphere. Pollutants contain harmful gases like Methane, Carbon Monoxide (CO), Volatile organic compound (VOC) and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Clouds of ash and smoke can travel more than a thousand kilometers and create an obstinate and non-clearing cloud. Smog formed of the smoke can increase the levels of pollutants by manifolds in the air, making it difficult to breathe. 
  • Burning husk on ground destroys the nutrients in the soil, making it less fertile. Heat generated by stubble burning penetrates into the soil, leading to the loss of the moisture and useful microbes. Thus adversely affecting the soil. It kills natural nutrients and bacteria that help rejuvenate the soil.

Way Forward

The first and foremost thing that is to be done is to stop blaming the farmers entirely for the stubble burning. The farmers also know the devastating effect it has, as they are the first one to feel the brunt of it. many of them including their families have become asthmatic and quite a few have even been diagnosed of cancer. Thus entirely blaming will not solve the issue as had they been privy to any other option within their reach they would have opted for it a long time a long time ago.

The need of incentive can not be less iterated here. Other crops can be made profitable to grow by formulating a market for it or high variety paddy can be sowed which will fetch a higher cost for the crop as well as the residue stubble can be used for energy production. If the transportation of the stubble becomes profitable to the farmers, they will happy provide ot for energy production.

There is also a need for proactive engagement to persuade as well as reassure the farmers to switch, and also zero-tolerance policy should be used which is beneficial to all the stakeholders, i.e., the farmers, the government and the environment.

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