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Paddy stubble: The ‘burning’ conundrum

Riding on the roads of rural Punjab, a grim spectre unfolds. It is early November and there is fire and smoke all around for the endless land that stretches ahead. It is paddy stubble burning time in the state. This phenomenon is not exceptional to the state of Punjab in India but is also prevalent in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.

Recently, there has been much hue and cry by politicians and experts alike on the extent of air pollution problem in the capital city of New Delhi has been caused by the burning of paddy stubble in these three states. This exacerbates the already disadvantageous landlocked Delhi that has no rejuvenating ability like other coastal cities such as Bombay or Chennai where pollutants are swept out towards the ocean. However, there is no room for doubt that paddy stubble burning is a problem for urban and rural areas alike and has to be resolved.

According to the statistics stated in the National Policy for Management of Crop Residues of the central agricultural ministry, approximately 82 per cent of the 50 million tonnes of surplus crop residues in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is burnt. Punjab alone produces about 19-20 million tonnes of paddy straw and about 85-90 per cent of this paddy straw is burnt in the field.

According to the law, violators can be booked for disobedience of order duly promulgated by the government under Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. However, paddy straw burning is still pertinent in the region as there is little translation of these punitive provisions and measures into action.

Farmers while conscious of the negative impact on the environment and public health, in absence of viable alternatives, have no other option except to burn the paddy stubble since there is little time left for the next sowing season. Traditional practices of using paddy straw for purposes like animal bedding and mulching have reduced in the region. Adoption of mechanised harvesting process using combine harvesters as against manual harvesting has made it tedious to collect the leftover stubble.

The substantial input costs involved in removing paddy straw from the field makes the process of paddy straw utilisation economically unviable. Farmers have to wait at times for many days in the grain market to fetch a good price for their produce. Under these circumstances, there are little options and time left for farmers for on-field or off-field management of paddy straw.

The key policy document from the centre entitled, "National Policy for Management of Crop Residues" of 2014 intends controlling of crop residue burning, adoption of technical measures, including diversified uses of crop residue, capacity building and training along with the formulation of suitable laws and policy interventions. Similarly, the draft Policy for Management and Utilisation of Paddy Straw in Punjab, 2013, provides alternative options for utilising paddy straw in the state. For crop residue management, under sub-mission on agriculture mechanisation, the Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare have allocated funds.

Punjab has also set up a Paddy Straw Challenge Fund of one million dollars for scientists globally to come up with a technological solution. While technological solutions such as happy seeders, balers and mulchers may be an alternative in the short term, in the longer run, crop diversification as a policy intervention needs to be emphasised on by both Centre and states.

Diversification of rice-wheat cropping system areas is necessary not only because of the burning of paddy straw but also because of depletion of water tables, stagnancy in crop yield and decreasing health of natural resources in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh.

According to the latest statistics available by the Central Ground Water Board, the stage of groundwater development is very high in the states of Haryana and Punjab, where it is more than 100 per cent, which implies that in these states the annual groundwater consumption is more than annual groundwater recharge. According to government statistics, stage of groundwater development is 62 per cent for India, 172 per cent for Punjab and 133 per cent for Haryana.

Several blocks in Uttar Pradesh are also in an over-exploited category with respect to groundwater resources. The Crop Diversification Program in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana of the ministry of agriculture and Farmers Welfare in 2013-14 targets a diversion of 5 per cent of the area under paddy in identified blocks towards alternate crops in the three states. Similarly, the draft Agriculture Policy for Punjab 2013 envisages to make concerted efforts to reduce the area under paddy cultivation by 40 per cent from current levels in a span of 5-7 years.

These policy initiatives by the Centre are definitely off-track as the latest agricultural statistics by the ministry of agriculture and Farmers Welfare for 2016 show an increase in area under paddy cultivation over the previous year for the states of Punjab and Haryana. Despite this clearly dismal performance, the fund allocation under the crop diversification programme for the component on "alternative crops demonstration" has been reduced from 60 per cent in 2013-14 to 40 per cent in 2015-16. The awareness among farmers about the policies on crop diversification is very low. Surprisingly, the national programme on crop diversification is vague about provisions related to awareness and outreach activities to sensitise the farmers.

Crop diversification efforts would require policy assistance to the farmers along with the establishment of agro-based enterprises. However, the policy is unclear on how it would create an innovation system involving entrepreneurship and cooperative action for agro-based enterprises. There is also very little said about incentives such as minimum support price and infrastructure support for alternative crops.

The challenge that lies before policymakers is clearly enormous. Both central and state policy stakeholders need to together take stock of various state and central schemes related to crop residue management but also of crop diversification. The sad reality is that environmental agencies in India have limited mandates and functions. It is also not enough for agricultural agencies alone to tackle an issue of this mammoth scale requiring interdisciplinary solutions that are not only technological, market-based, policy-oriented but also social. Policy approaches to interim solutions linked to paddy straw management and utilisation need to follow a more holistic and integrated approach. For example, paddy stubbles could be removed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and enterprises for paddy utilisation can be encouraged under the National Rural Livelihood Mission. Central and state governments also need to focus on engaging with entrepreneurs for building agro-based industries along with civil society organisations for sensitisation and outreach with the farmers.

Long terms solutions cannot only be technological but also need to be entrepreneurial and ethical. Clearly, any society cannot allow this environmental and social catastrophe to unfold, when there can be optimism on human ingenuity and will of citizens to demand for the good from policy establishments.

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