Recently, in a bid to curb the persistent issue of stubble burning contributing to severe air pollution, the Supreme Court presented a stern message to farmers, suggesting excluding farmers burning their stubble from the purview of the minimum support price (MSP) to discourage them from doing so.
Also, the SC urged the promotion of alternative crops to replace rice cultivation, which has contributed to water depletion and stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana, and the NCR region.
Stubble burning is the intentional setting of fire to crop residue that remains after harvest, to remove them from the field to sow the next crop.
Crop burning is a widespread global practice and in India it is concentrated predominantly in the agrarian areas of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.
Though banned in many states, the practice is reported every year starting winter. The number of fire events peaks from mid-October till the first week of November.This led to an increase in the levels of particulate matter in Delhi in October and November.
WHY IS IT BURNED?
For the farmers, burning is the cheapest and fastest way to get rid of the stubble. Burning straw is considered a low-cost solution alternative to tilling in the straw using machines.
Short sowing time:
Farmers get as little as 10 days between rice harvesting season and the sowing of winter wheat. If they are late in sowing, due to short winters these days, they might face considerable losses. Hence, they turn to stubble burning to quickly remove the residue.
Unlike manual harvesting techniques, combine harvesters leave behind several inches of stubble in the fields, which prevents machines from sowing seeds for the next season.
Rising fuel prices:
Machines meant to mulch stubble consume a lot of diesel, which means the per acre cost may become unaffordable to some.
Eg: The Happy Seeder requires about 10 litres of diesel per acre, and can only do about 10-12 acres a day. This costs farmers around Rs 2,500/acre for straw mulching, which may not be affordable for the small and marginal farmers.
No alternative use for stubble:
Earlier, crop residue was used for cooking, as fodder for livestock and as construction material. However, now the stubble use for such purposes has become outdated.
High silica content:
Some residues such as non-basmati rice straw have high silica content. Hence, it takes longer time for them to degrade and is also considered useless as fodder, forcing farmers to burn them.
Weak law enforcement:
Burning crop residue is a crime under Section 188 of the IPC and under the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981. However, government’s implementation lacks strength.
Limitation of alternatives:
Technological solutions like Happy Seeders are expensive to operate, particularly for small and marginal farmers. The effectiveness of less expensive solutions like Pusa decomposers are inhibited by erratic rainfalls.
For instance, the use of bio-decomposers in Punjab has not shown favourable results in trials, given the narrow gap for sowing wheat after the paddy harvest.
Legislations by Haryana and Punjab governments to save groundwater seems to have a role in increasing stubble burning in winter time.
For instance, the Punjab Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act 2009 pushed back rice planting from May, when farmers were solely dependent on groundwater reserves, to June, in order to bring cultivation closer to the monsoon season. But now farmers have fewer days between harvesting the rice and planting the next crop, mainly wheat, forcing them to burn their residues.
It is a tractor-operated machine. Initially, the paddy fields are harvested using a combined harvester fitted with a straw management equipment, which chops and evenly spreads the stubble in the field. Then farmers can directly sow wheat seeds using Happy Seeder.
The ‘Pusa Decomposer’ is a decomposer developed by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) as a solution to the problem of crop burning.
It contains strains from fungi, which assist in producing enzymes essential to quicken the decomposition of bio-mass. It is completely organic and free of chemicals.
The decomposer provides a cheap solution to the problem of crop burning as four of its capsules, costing Rs 5 each, are enough to make 25 litres of solution that can be used for rapid decomposition of crop residue over a hectare of field.
EFFECTS OF BURNING:
Emission and pollution:
Crop residue burning released tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of sulphur (SOX), particulate matter and black carbon. These directly contribute to environmental pollution, and are also responsible for the haze in Delhi and melting of Himalayan glaciers.
Effect on human health:
Smoke from the stubble increases the risk of acute respiratory infection (ARI) three-fold for those living in districts with intense crop burning. Given the covid pandemic, stubble burning can aggravate health emergency in the country.
Threat to fundamental right:
Supreme Court in the case of MC Mehta (Stubble burning and Air Quality) versus Union of India (2020) has observed that stubble burning causes a serious kind of pollution which threatens the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution of India.
The heat from burning paddy straw penetrates 1 centimetre into the soil, elevating the soil temperature. This kills the bacterial and fungal populations critical for a fertile soil and increases the expenses on inputs like fertilizers.
Increased vulnerability to pests:
Due to the loss of ‘friendly’ pests, the wrath of ‘enemy’ pests has increased and as a result, crops are more prone to disease. The solubility capacity of the upper layers of soil have also been reduced. Both these have reduced the productivity from farmlands.
Loss of nutrients:
One ton of residue containing 4-6 kg of nitrogen, 1-2 kg of phosphorus, and 15-20 kg of potassium. However, these nutrients are wasted in burning and farmers have to spend on chemical fertilisers to maintain soil quality.
Crop residue burning also leads to an estimated economic loss of over USD 30 billion annually. The negative health effects of crop burning lowers the productivity of residents and may lead to long-term adverse impacts on the economy and health.
GOVERNMENT EFFORTS TO CURB BURNING:
The Supreme Court had banned stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana and ordered them to provide cash incentives to farmers who do not resort to crop burning.
The Centre had in 2018 launched a Rs 1,150-crore scheme to support farmers for machinery, capacity development, knowledge sharing and awareness creation. The Centre is giving subsidy on purchase of machines for residue management.
Paddy Stubble Management Policy in Haryana: The policy aims to use paddy straw for sustainable energy, targeting the elimination of crop residue burning by 2027.
Collaboration between Punjab Energy Agency and GAIL: Punjab Energy Development Agency and Gas Authority Of India Ltd have joined forces to create 10 compressed biogas projects, enhancing their focus on renewable energy.
Waste to wealth:
Instead of burning of the stubble, it can be managed in-situ in different ways like cattle feed, compost manure, biomass energy, mushroom cultivation, packing materials, fuel, paper, bio-ethanol and industrial production, etc.
Farmers can also manage crop residues effectively by employing agricultural machines like Happy Seeder, Rotavator, baler (used for collection of straw and making bales of the paddy stubble) and Paddy Straw Chopper (cutting of paddy stubble for easily mixing with the soil).
Currently, the machineries are too costly and the state governments should come forward and provide assured subsidy for purchase. Also, states can follow Punjab’s model of procuring residue at a price and utilising crop residue for ethanol production and in biomass-based power plants.
Switching to shorter-duration paddy varieties such as PUSA Basmati-1509 and PR-126 enables earlier harvests by late September. This allows more time for stubble decomposition, reducing the need for stubble-burning.
Biotechnology can be used to develop crops with low lignocellulosic residues and solutions to increase decomposition rates in residues.
Stubble offers an important source for meeting the nutrient requirements of crops and improving soil health. But for their extraction, states need to step in with technological support and engage already-existing mechanisms like the MGNREGA for this purpose.
The need of the hour is to divert the grain bowl status from North to other regions of India and encourage other crops, especially pulses and horticulture.
To encourage diversification, the MSP of pulse and horticrops should be altered to ensure economic price parity with cereals. Also, amendment to APMC Act to ensure private participation in marketing and development of post-harvest handling infrastructure for perishable commodities should be made.
Q. Discuss why stubble burning is a problem for the environment, agriculture, and humans. Suggest measures to tackle stubble burning. (15 marks, 250 words)