Farm fires set to continue as subsidy may not encourage shift to tech

The harvest season has already begun in many parts of northwest India, and even as most farmer groups agitate against the farm bills, community leaders said crop stubble burning may continue this year too, saying subsidies on straw management machinery is not enough for small farmers to switch to machines.

Satellite images released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) have shown an increasing number of stubble burning incidents in Punjab over the past five days, especially in Amritsar district.

Nasa also warned that with plumes of smoke being seen over Delhi, the city’s air quality may also deteriorate in the coming weeks. Delhi government data shows that stubble burning accounted for 44% of the city’s air pollution last year.

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A silver lining, however, is that the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) will in certain farms this year test its microbial consortium, which helps decompose stubble quickly, thereby removing the need for any straw management machinery. But it may not be scaled up to all of northwest India immediately, officials said.

“We had been working on the microbial consortium for a couple of years after the happy seeder (for straw management) was introduced. Last year, it was tried in Uttar Pradesh and it had worked. So, after the crop is harvested with a combine harvester, it needs to be chopped so that the straw is short and the microbial consortium can be used. The money for straw management machinery to be subsidised has also been released to Punjab and Haryana so farmers can access that. I think there will be a further reduction in crop stubble burning this year compared to last year,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director, Indian Council for Agricultural Research.

But farmers are not aware of the microbial consortium’s effectiveness. “We have heard about the solution. If it works, nothing like it. The only worry is that if straws from paddy don’t decompose , it will delay the sowing for the Rabi season. They should do a trial,” said Dharmendra Kumar, spokesperson, Bharatiya Kisan Union.

Also read: Air quality on the decline in Delhi, expect worse in coming week

“No machine can remove the straw effectively and farmers end up spending on the machines and fuel. So there was talk of giving direct subsidy to farmers of about Rs 100 per quintal. But that has not happened. Instead they have used that money to subsidise straw management machinery,” he added.

Harvesting started a week early this time, according to Rattan Singh Mann, chief of the BKU’s Haryana unit.

“I have seen small farmers are already setting fire to their farms after harvesting. That’s because it was very warm this month which prepared the crop for early harvest. Small farmers who do not have access to machinery will continue to burn stubble this year. But the Haryana government has made both cooperative societies for renting machines and is also offering subsidies to those who need to buy it,” Mann said.

BKU general secretary Harinder Singh Lakhowal said a large number of farmers have not received subsidies to buy straw management machinery this year, so obviously they will burn stubble. “Farmers are extremely disturbed about the farm bills also. It’s a crisis,” said .

Besides causing pollution, burning also affects the soil’s fertility. Burning one tonne of straw accounts for loss of 5.5kg nitrogen, 2.3kg phosphorus, 25kg potassium and 1.2kg sulphur. Heat from burning straw penetrate into the soil up to 1 cm. Repeated burning permanently diminishes the bacterial population by more than 50% according to an analysis by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Centre under its in-situ management of crop residue scheme has allocated Rs 1,151.80 crore for subsidising straw management machinery from 2018-19 to 2019-20.

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