Why stubble burning is so hard to fix

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News: Post Diwali, Delhi and the entire Gangetic plains have been covered in a thick blanket of smog.

Stubble burning by farmers in states such as Punjab, Haryana, and parts of Uttar Pradesh is just one of many causes for declining air quality in Delhi.

Recently, the Supreme Court too acknowledged this fact while directing the government to consider a temporary lockdown.

In this context, there is an immediate need to resolve issues related to stubble burning coupled with other mitigation strategies that can improve air quality in Delhi.

Why do farmers prefer to burn stubble?

There are multiple reasons behind stubble burning.

Long term causes

– Policy issues: In 2009 the Punjab government made a law that barred farmers from planting paddy before the dates notified. This was done to time plantings to the arrival of the annual monsoon.

This enforced delay in planting pushed the date of harvest to November, which meant farmers had to quickly clear their fields to plant wheat. A delay means lower yields. Due to this short window, farmers took to burning the crop residue in larger numbers.

Contribution of climate: Wind direction changes in late October-mid November, which carries the smoke all over the northern Gangetic plains.

Lack of trust on crop residue management machinery: Farmers fear a decline in productivity if crop residue management machines (happy seeder and super seeder) are used.

The lack of supply chain constituents like biomass aggregators, processors, and storage facilities have made the existing ex-situ ecosystem a failure.

Must read: Read more about stubble burning in these articles: Article 1, Article 2, Article 3

Immediate causes

– Cost-related issues: Rising prices of diesel pushed up the operational cost of using these machines. Fuel accounts for a quarter of the cost of operating these machines.

– Farmer protest: Some farmers seem to be putting their fields on fire as a mark of protest.

What are some potential solutions?

Firstly, using machines to incorporate crop residues into the soil, using straw as boiler fuel or for manufacturing packaging materials.

Secondly, finding an alternative to the paddy-wheat cycle. Such as growing pulses or oilseeds, instead of paddy.

What are the associated challenges?

Firstly, incorporating crop residues back into the soil is facing a severe challenge due to the rising cost of diesel and rent for the necessary machines.

Also, the machine-led solution is only benefitting manufacturers who have raised the prices (of crop management machines) to corner government subsidies.

Secondly, farmers are unwilling to move away from paddy since they can sell their entire production to the government at assured support prices, while growing pulses or oilseeds entails significant price risks.

What is the way forward?

– Scaling up biomass-based power generation to 1,000MW in a year, the problem of stubble burning in northern India can be remedied significantly.

– Discoms should pay a bit extra for biomass-based renewable energy for the sake of clean air.

– Assured government purchase at support prices for pulses like masoor and oilseeds like groundnut

State government-run cooperative MARKFED can stop the procurement of food grains for central agencies. It must focus on its original mandate of marketing farmers’ produce. It could enter into contract farming with farmers for oilseeds to improve supplies where India is deficient.

Source: This post is based on the article “Why stubble burning is so hard to fix” published in Livemint on 16th November 2021.

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