Top ten countries by total agriculture emissions and relative role of crops and livestock activities and agricultural land use, 2018
PADDY stubble burning is a very emotive and polarising topic — and for the past few years, a repetitive and seasonal topic. There is a lot of noise about the burning of about 93 per cent of around 20 million tonnes of stubble produced from about 27 lakh hectares in Punjab.
Stubble burning is a problem of plenty — a problem imposed on Punjab and Haryana. When the then PM Indira Gandhi wanted to ensure that the nation achieved self-sufficiency in foodgrain production, she entrusted the two states only with this responsibility. And they both delivered. And how! They achieved self-sufficiency in about three years, and were grain-surplus in another couple of years. Paddy was never a crop suitable for either of the states, and both paid a very high price in terms of ecological, environmental and societal disruptions as well as the tearing up of their rural ethos — without so much as a thank you. Of the total national wheat pool of 341.33 lakh metric tonnes (MT) for 2019-20, they contributed a combined 222.3 lakh MT to the Central pool (Punjab, 129.1; Haryana, 93.2); and 152.7 lakh MT of rice against the national pool of 443.3 lakh MT (Punjab, 113.3; Haryana, 39.4). About 65 per cent of wheat and 35 per cent of our nation’s rice come from these two states with an area less than 3 per cent of the national land mass.
Traditional farming methods are perfected over generations of observations, adaptations to local conditions, and continued success or failure. In the case of Punjab, that meant growing wheat, pulses, bajra, chillies, chickpeas, potatoes, millets, onions etc. over one half of a farmer’s landholding. The other half was left to regenerate. No chemicals were used, and the farmer exercised seed sovereignty, crop diversity and nutritional self-sufficiency. Crops were grown with the purpose of being healthy, nutritious food for the local community; not an industrial input for distant factories.
In the case of paddy, the farmer had almost no time to study, adjust or adapt. Nor did the guiding agencies. Once this problem of plenty appeared, the farmers were, believe it or not, actually advised by the leading lights to burn the stubble, and add an extra crop cycle in the available time.
That was when paddy was planted almost directly after harvesting wheat. Now the state mandates the date when paddy can be transplanted. If we went by the earlier planting time, it would be harvested when the air is relatively light, with a high cloud ceiling allowing the smoke to dissipate easily. With the newly mandated times, the harvest gets pushed out to a time when the air has become denser, the cloud ceiling lowered, and wind direction changed, leading to a hue and cry from different quarters — raising the stakes against the farmers even more.
The amount of smoke created is there for all to see and suffer. However, what is covered by the smoke are the small, controlled fires (as opposed to uncontrolled and destructive forest fires) which are actually good for the earth. These rejuvenate the earth, remove invasive weeds and insects, add carbon, stimulate microbial activity below the ground etc. For obvious reasons, these facts are suppressed and the farmers are made to feel guilty for creating a living hell for everyone around them.
The stubble smoke is a byproduct of ‘manufacturing’ food, and lasts all of a few days in the year. How many of us make a noise about the pollutants emitted by manufacturers of consumer goods (which are not a need, but a want — all year long?)
At this point, I am neither defending nor opposing the practice of stubble burning, but giving another perspective. I am, however, defending the farmer from those who will quickly jump to blaming him without actually understanding his constraints. Those whose job it was to guide him effectively through the process of switching to a new crop and leading him to a successful outcome for everyone failed to do the needful. The consequences of growing paddy, which was a non-native crop, should have been accessed and controlled with a greater sense of responsibility. That it was not done means that the last man — the simple, poor, malleable farmer is left holding the bag; with the spotlight focusing directly and unflatteringly on him. Equally to blame are those farmers who know the difference and fail to speak up.
Finding a fair and sustainable solution workable for both is the only way forward. The governments and courts have all formulated their own solutions and tried to implement them, but have so far failed. Almost all solutions have either been authoritarian, ill-conceived (from the farmer’s point of view) or simply holding an adversarial stand against the farmer.
The way forward? To monetise the value of paddy stubble. Make it a raw material for industrial input. There are a number of byproducts that can be derived from stubble. If a few motivated industrialists were to join hands with some concerned farmers and an encouraging administration, there is no reason why a viable solution cannot be found. Don’t penalise the farmer for burning stubble; incentivise the industry to capitalise the stubble instead. It can be converted to bricks; added to board; made into bio-char, vermicompost; used in packaging; made into ropes etc. The domestic and export potential of some of these items can take care of the sheer volume of stubble produced.
One project which stands out as a beacon is that of Sampurn Agriventures of Fazilka. For the past few years, they’ve been taking paddy stubble and converting it into bio-fertiliser, biogas and manure. In order to demonstrate the concept, they have set up the first paddy straw processing project. Currently, they are processing 5,000 MT of paddy straw annually. Their manure has been tested by Punjab Agricultural University and Queen’s University, UK. As per the study, 1 kg of this manure is equal to 20 kg of farm yard manure for fruits and vegetable cultivation. Further, this manure, being rich in silica, not only helps in better growth of plants but also provides immunity to plants against many pests and diseases. The paddy straw compost is also rich in a unique bacterium known as Delftia sp PP4-S3, which helps in nutrient availability and decomposes air-borne organic pollutants. To top it all, this manure also saves 40 per cent water as it has water retention properties.
Corporates which don’t want to invest in full-blown projects can set up technology demonstration and validation centres for smaller projects such as rope making at, say, the panchayat level, and for larger projects at the district level through their CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds.
The farmers obliged a nation by changing their traditional agricultural practices — to their own detriment. It is now time for the nation to oblige the farmers. And if you must penalise the farmer for creating smoke for a few days every year, please also bring into the equation the amount of oxygen he puts into the environment during the rest of the year. Balance the two, and see if he owes us, or we owe him! And if you feel miserable in the cities due to stubble smoke, can you imagine the situation on ground zero? Do you seriously think anyone would want to put their children and elders in that stifling situation by wilful choice? Again and again?
The author grows organic crops certified by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority
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