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Stubble burning

Over the past decades till date so much of noise is being heard all over the country from Punjab, Haryana and Delhi during the paddy harvesting season. Stubble burning isn’t an act of ignorance or illiteracy but of rebellion and helplessness.
Elsa Lycias Joel

Rebellion towards government lethargy and helplessness because they are threatened by increasing economic marginality and eventual extinction. According to the Economic Survey of India 2018, the incomes of farmers in India have been stagnant since last three years bringing some kind of a morbid sense into the statistic of 45 farmers committing suicides every day in the country.Machines are unaffordable to ailing farmers and there isn’t any facility to dump crop residues.  In spite of being known as the wheat bowl of India, Punjab doesn’t acquire the notorious distinction of a wheat stubble burner because it’s converted into chaff and sold as animal fodder. Representatives and experts from almost ten states of India, including Punjab and Haryana have participated in the National conference on agriculture for Kharif campaign, 2017 inaugurated by Shri Radha Mohan Singh, former Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in the presence of Shri Pashottam Rupala & Shri Sudarshan Bhagat, the then Ministers of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare chaired the conference. Integrated farming approach, planned and concerted work approach between different departments of agriculture and allied sectors was insisted by the minister. Crop residue management alternatives to prevent stubble burning was discussed and debated. From retention of crop residue as mulch to government’s responsibility by giving reasonable subsidy on equipment such as happy/super seeder, laser levelers, mulcher so on and so forth, everything was expected to be sorted out with measurable objectives and overall goals as far as the welfare of the farmer and his contribution to the society is concerned. Still, the ‘burning issue’ seems to be on the back burner even while humans choke.  Adapting to changing needs of the society which is nothing but embracing farming techniques with a touch of humanity will end slash and burn. Farmers reeling under debts, penury and poverty will opt for easy and quick ways of clearing their fields which is nothing new but an on-going crisis since the 80s. With facts and statistics at our disposal we ought to believe that farm fires can be blamed for 40% of the total pollution in the Capital. Still, it can’t be ignored at least twice a year just as we can’t turn a blind eye to a governance deficit. Attributing this deficit to the present state government alone is nothing but a blame-game shift. Rules and laws in place, lackadaisical attitude in implementing laws, bribes demanded and given, huge fines being slashed on the already debt/loan ridden farmers, government paying fines to (NGT) National Green Tribunal, incentives as a mere Rs. 2500/ acre and machinery banks will never yield solutions. Multi-pronged strategies devised two years back at the conclusion of two-day National Conference on Agriculture for Kharif Campaign–2017 to double farmers’ incomes by 2022 and the eight groups that were formed to discuss in-depth on the best mechanisation practices to avoid burning of straw in addition to market reforms, effective role of the electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM), Sustainability of pulses production, utilisation of a corpus fund under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana and many more hasn’t lighted any lamp at the end of any tunnel.

It all goes back to the Green revolution of 1965 that introduced high yield varieties of rice and wheat with unintended ecological and socioeconomic repercussions. Yes, Punjab’s ‘story’ of prosperity in disguise once began with green revolution and government programs/incentives/ guarantees/subsidies. Undisputed fact is nature abhors monoculture. Moreover, the practice of relying heavily on just one or two crops – has always been a terrible idea. For instance, during the great potato famine in Ireland close to a million people died. Granary of India resorted to rice-wheat rotation after displacing other traditional crops including barley and pulses more suited to the region. Is the miracle of green revolution still making sense?The Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana, India that has emerged as a center of excellence in agriculture research and its applications for progressive farmers can always pitch in with their expertise as part of its extension initiative to find feasible alternatives to stubble burning and convince farmers and government too if need be.

“It’s through that diversity that we can sequester carbon [and] put that carbon into the soil. That carbon, in turn, through the soil biology, is what produces healthy crops, healthy animals, and eventually healthy people.” In the land of five rivers, agriculture should never have shifted from a diversified, climate adapted crop choice to a predominantly rice-wheat rotation with much higher water use.

Unfortunately, today, stubble burning alone doesn’t plague this land which was once hailed as the ‘temple of modern India’. Dry/contaminated dug wells, intermittent supply from tube wells, reduced storage capacity in water reservoirs and depleted ground water looms over the farmers as the smog over our capital. A bad omen! Reliable source of food grains and intensification of agriculture should not tell on human wellbeing. Stubble burning is also a reflection of the agrarian crisis hitting India’s granary.

Fool proof solutions offered by R&D institutes and entrepreneurs to handle wheat & paddy stubble are aplenty ruling out the need for conferences, national & international and symposiums on crop residue management. Governments that encouraged mono-cropping and double cropping with all enthusiasm must ensure alignment between different ministries to end stubble burning, advocate and promote no-till farming practices with all possible resourcesinstead of doles and fines, encourage industries that can use crop residue as raw materialby incentivizing them and if necessary form a committee under BhureLal. Timely intervention with judicious solutions during that short window between harvesting paddy and preparing the field for sowing the successive wheat crop will pave way for pollution-free states.

Swiftly and promptly does our government work to prove a point to other developed nations that our country is no less. Be it building statues or launching satellites or procuring arms or modernizing nuclear arsenal, no government had wasted a moment to ape the grandeur of another country, successfully or in vain. It’s a pity that governments are helpless about helping poor farmers. We can take enough lessons on crop residue management from Philippines and countries where paddy cultivation is done extensively with appropriate crop residue management in place. In 2017, while attending the ASEAN summit in Philippines PM Modi had also visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as well as PRRI (Philippines Rice Research Institute) to donate two varieties of rice to IRRI to bolster their rice-gene bank. Operationalizing the South Asian centre of IRRI, Varanasi was in the agenda as also infrastructure for research collaboration, training and service provision to institutions, scientists and other stakeholders from India and other south Asian and African countries was put in place. PRRI & IRRI are already conducting research to find ways to sustainably manage paddy straw and fortunately or unfortunately the ‘Burning issue’ in India didn’t figure in the list of priorities of our Indian delegation. Since we are known to rely only on indigenous resources and solutions, we can only hope something from IRRI, Varanasi will surface before humans die of choking.

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Massive institutional support by the state including assured price and marketing support addressed food security needs since the green revolution in Punjab. What’s preventing the same institution from helping farmers to stop stubble burning?

Four months back, a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel asked the three states to file progress reports indicating the “strategies and proposed action plan” to tackle this issue. Reports by the Agricultural ministry mentioning schemes and subsidies were referred followed by NGT’s suggestions which included the need for developing an app in coordination with ISRO’s geoportal ‘Bhuvan’ to alert village-level officer or local police when crop burning is noticed.

Composting crop residue or maize as an alternative to paddy or no-till farming or making a happy/superseeder affordable are all possible feasible solutions with an effective vigilant monitoring network.Citizens can wish, pray and hope the government think-tanksto come up with clear/level-headed permanent solutions to this perennial problem and most urgent is to eliminate those cartels of middlemen and agents thriving in markets established under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act-1963.

Overall growth objectives should never clash with sustainability concerns and never with human welfare.

Upcycle or re-cycle, don’t fire the stubble.

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