Playing With Fire: Why Punjab’s Farmers Are Forced to Burn Stubble

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

As smoke billows out of his charred paddy field, Kartar Singh settles down by the elevated edge to explain the desperation that he and those like him face. “For us, there’s no alternative to stubble burning,” the 60-year-old says.

Singh hails from Rama village in Punjab’s Moga district and has an outstanding farm loan of Rs 10 lakh. He has no money to buy expensive machines or employ labour to dispose the residual straws. The only option available to small farmers of his ilk is much cheaper, and doesn’t cost more than Rs 500.

Why Farmers Burn Stubble

Among the many reasons why farmers in Punjab are often not able to manage stubble is the sheer cost involved in cutting and transporting straws.

Kartar Singh, who owns an acre of land, says he has to spend over Rs 2,500 on labour alone and additional 2,500 on transporting stubble.

“Imagine how many labourers will it take to clear this land. One labourer itself charges Rs 400 per day. No matter what the government says we will burn the stubble,” he adds.

It's not just economic hardship, but also the narrow time period between two subsequent crops that forces farmers to clear fields as early as possible. Bhoota Singh, who too lives in Rama village, plans to cultivate potatoes in the approaching season. But before sowing fresh seeds, he must clear straws left behind by the earlier crop of paddy.

Bhoota Singh says he too has no option but to set his field on fire. “Potatoes should be planted within 15-20 days when the season starts. If planted late, then summers start which may affect the yield,” he adds. A late yield of potato, Bhoota Singh explains, would cause potatoes to soften and rot.

Farmers Unhappy With Happy-Seeder Machines?

In 2018, the Punjab government received over Rs 669 crore to develop alternative strategies on stubble burning, out of which Rs 200 crore was allotted for subsidising machines that aid in stubble management.

To discourage farmers from burning stubble, the state also offered 50-80 percent subsidy on happy seeder machines. These machines not only cut straws but also sow seeds into the soil at the same time. The seeds are then covered with the straws, which act as fertilisers.

But farmers believe that the happy-seeder machine hinders crop growth.

"We can’t use happy seeder machines to sow seeds. This machine does not allow seeds to mix with the soil and prevents them from germinating properly. This adds to our costs. Hence, we are forced to burn stubble.  " - Jaksir Singh, farmer

While farmers remain skeptical of happy seeder machines, the high price tag associated with them has further discouraged their usage in Punjab’s agricultural economy. According to farmers, a single happy-seeder machine costs over Rs 1.5 lakh and is too expensive to buy, even after a 50 percent subsidy.

Rawandeep Singh, a farmer in Ludhiana’s Ghaloti village, says happy-seeder machines can only be driven around by tractors above 65 horsepowers. However, most farmers use low-power tractors, which do not exceed 45 horsepowers. Even if these powerful tractors are hired from the local cooperatives, farmers would have to bear fuel expenses.

Punjab Short of 76,000 Machines

Since marginal farmers are not able to buy stubble-management machines or the expensive tractors required to drive them, they turn to the farmers associations in their respective villages, which are entitled to a subisdy of 80% on happy-seeder machines.

The farming associations in both Rama and Ghaloti village have just one happy-seeder machine, each of which can cover upto 10 acres of land in a day.

At this rate, a happy seeder machine would take 300 days to cover 3,000 acres in Rama village and 1,000 days to cover 10,000 acres in Ghaloti village. Both are impractical, as farmers typically have 15 days between harvest and sowing of fresh crop.

The shortage of machines required to manage stubble is a phenomenon that magnifies itself at the state level. In Punjab, paddy is produced in over 65 lakh hectares and over 1 lakh machines are required to clear fields, if farmers are to manage stubble without burning it away.

But the state has subsidised only 24,000 stubble-management machines, which will take around 67 days to clear stubble, as opposed to the 15-day window that farmers have.

How Affordable is Organic Farming?

So what’s the solution? Some, including Anirudh Vashisth, believe the answer to Punjab’s stubble-burning crisis lies in organic farming. Vashisth, a farmer from Sangrur district’s Sunam town “doesn’t burn stubble” and has taken to eco-friendly methods like soaking stubble in water, mulching and rope making.

But even these measures are time consuming and will burn an extra hole in the empty pockets of marginal farmers. Soaking stubble in the field, for instance, requires a tractor to mix it with the soil. Not only is the process expensive, but also time-consuming, as the farmer has to wait for the stubble to decompose.

Mulching involves covering the roots of the crop with straws. But this process, too, requires machinery and labour. Ropemaking is innovative, but it fetches the farmer very little money and needs at least two labourers.

The measures adopted by Anirudh Vashisht are eco-friendly and may go a long way in solving Punjab’s stubble trouble. But this will only happen if the government steps in to promote organic farming on a mass scale.

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