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Posted at: Oct 19, 2016, 12:11 AM; last updated: Oct 19, 2016, 12:11 AM (IST)

A burning problem

A burning problem
Despite appeals to refrain from burning paddy straw, farmers contiue to do so due to the lack of a viable alternative. The government must step in to help the farmers rather than blame them.

EVERY year at the beginning of the winter season, Delhi and the adjoining areas face the problem of air pollution due to the burning of rice stubble and straw in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and the National Capital Region. The poor farmers, who are responsible for the prosperity of these states, are blamed for the pollution by the governments and the courts. 

The problem has been there for a long time, although the intensity of the pollution was less. Once winter sets in, the atmosphere in the northern region gets cold and heavy. The cold air above prevents the upward movement of the smoke. As a result, it remains in the atmosphere till the wind blows it out. The problem has become acute in recent years because rice growing area in these states has increased. The farmers burn the root stubbles and the straw in situ, since there is no financial return for collecting it and disposing it. There is no demand for rice straw in the northern region as the cattle does not consume it. Collection of these byproducts costs money and the farmers are not willing to spend time and money on this. There is also little time left after rice harvest as the land has to be got ready for wheat sowing. Therefore, the farmer has found that  the best way  is to burn it in situ. This problem is unique to the northern region, although all states in India produce rice but the land is not generally used for growing a successive crop immediately. As a result, the left-overs in the field, the stubbles, get decomposed before the next sowing season. Also, the cattle and other ruminant animals in the rest of the country eat rice straw, unlike the cattle in Haryana and Punjab.

The people in the northern belt use as fuel cow-dung cakes made during the summer months as fuel. Burning of these cakes produces a dense smoke which adds further to the problem of air pollution. The pollution from vehicles and power plants further adds to the pollution problem of Delhi and the surrounding areas. The problem cannot be solved merely by making the burning of the rice straw an offence. The governments have so far done nothing to minimise the problem. Today, almost 80 per cent of the irrigated land in these three states follows a rice-wheat rotation and the acreage has steadily increased. As a result, the rice residues have also increased. Rice produces the grain, straw, and the stubbles in equal amounts. These two states alone, which together produce  about 15  million tonne of paddy, also produce an equal amount of straw and root stubble. 

It is not that there are no solutions to the problem. Farmers, small as well as big ones, are not willing to spend money on collection and disposal of this waste. They find burning in situ the best solution. These days, harvest ing is mechanised and the machines leave a substantial portion of the straw uncut. Stubble is hardy material and does not decompose easily. The straw is not consumed by the cattle in Punjab and Haryana and the bulky material cannot be easily transported.

 Solutions to the air pollution problem but are not possible without the involvement of the governments concerned. Haryana, Delhi and Punjab are relatively wealthy states and should take over the responsibility of solving this problem instead of blaming the farmers.  The waste materials can be efficiently converted into fuel, feed and fertiliser. In the early 1970s, when the fossil fuel price began moving up, distilleries in Haryana, UP and Punjab faced a serious problem because the low price of alcohol was not remunerative.  The crisis led to innovation and the distilleries began using  rice husk as a fuel, thus getting a remunerative price for the rice mills for a waste that was hitherto a problem. This eliminated the mountains of rice husk that collected around the mills. Initially, the rice mills gave it free but later, as the demand increased, began charging for the husk. Today, with this innovation, the rice husk problem has been reduced considerably and the smoke production on burning has also been reduced, thanks to innovation in the boiler systems. Why only blame the farmers? Instead, using technology  and a little money can solve this problem. Putting the onus on the farmers and punishing them is unfair. If there is need to develop technology to improve on what has been suggested (see box), all the states in the northern region have excellent universities of agriculture, veterinary science, and engineering. These institutions should be roped  in to solve the problem. 

When the problem can be solved, blaming the poor farmers for the prosperity that they have made possible is unfair and cruel.

Steps to prevent stubble burning

1 Carry out a  detailed audit at the village level of the rice waste materials available, the root stubbles, straw and the husk..

2 Encourage rice-growing farmers to dig out the stubble using tractors, collect it cut it with fodder-cutting machines. The government should reimburse the cost of labour and the fuel.

3 Farmers must be encouraged to collect the straw and shred it by using the cutting machines and government should reimburse.

4 The government can take garbage-compressing trucks on loan from the cities to collect cut waste and compress it to reduce volume. 

5 Compressed  root stubble should be transported and sold to power stations, brick kilns or distilleries for use as fuel. The ash from these units should be returned to the rice fields.

6 Compressed straw  can be processed as "enriched feed," by mixing it with molasses, urea and oil cakes. It can be fed to camels, goats, and cattle in the neighbouring states. Compressing enriched feed & converting it into pellets will reduce cost of transport and will fetch a better price.

The writer retired as Professor of Microbiology from Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar. 


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