Paddy residue burning has been viewed mainly as a challenge of residue management. Its mismanagement in the states of Punjab and Haryana has led to annual winter smog and health problems in Delhi and other places in North India. However, this pervasive practice, which adversely affects soil health too, is also borne of the kind of agricultural development the Western Indo-Gangetic Plains have undergone.
The mainstreaming of industrialised agriculture has resulted in massive expansion of the practice of growing only paddy and wheat crops in the region, in rotation. The introduction of a hybrid variety facilitated paddy cultivation in the kharif season, April sowing and October/November harvest. Further, tubewell irrigation provided unrestricted water supply and growing labour shortages and costs led to the widespread adoption of combine harvesters that automated paddy harvest.
However, mechanised harvesting results in large volumes of stubble and straw left on the field. Furthermore, the need for timely sowing of the subsequent wheat crop leaves too short a window (around 15-20 days) for farmers to manually cut the stubble and prepare the field for wheat sowing. Labour shortages also make the process uneconomical. Farmers thus set their fields alight as they see it as the fastest and most cost-effective method to clear the residue as compared to other proposed alternatives. Punjab and Haryana today burn amongst the highest volumes of crop residue in the country - close to 20 million tonnes and 10 million tonnes respectively.
Alternatives and challenges
The main approach to reducing paddy residue burning has been to seek alternatives for residue utilisation and management both on and off the field. Meanwhile, although not specifically targeted towards the residue burning problem, a move away from intensive paddy monocropping is being promoted through a crop diversification initiative. There is also some indication that some newly introduced paddy varieties that take lesser time to grow can extend the interval between paddy harvest and wheat sowing season.
Paddy residue management
Unlike wheat residue, rice straw cannot be utilised as fodder in the region. Leaving the residue on the field isn’t viable for farmers as it takes too long to degrade and can also transmit crop diseases that may have occurred during the preceding paddy season. Mulching the residue in soil is known to cause problems in early wheat cultivation. It is also difficult since the combine harvester does not spread the straw evenly over the field. The Straw Management System - now a mandatory fixture on harvesters - that is said to make mulching a more viable option is yet to be widely adopted by farmers as it entails fuel and other expenses. On the other hand, while sowing wheat in the midst of the stubble using a machine called Happy Seeder is possible, it has not been adopted widely due to technical issues in operations, unavailability of machines and price issues.
There are also off field end-use options for paddy residue including biomass to energy, mushroom production, cardboard/paper making etc. However, challenges in existing technology, gaps in supply chains and an absence of markets has prevented paddy residue from acquiring economic value such that farmers are motivated to invest time and resources in residue collection and other stakeholders (including entrepreneurs) are incentivised to invest in these options. The volumes of paddy residue that can be utilised currently by these alternatives is a fraction of what is actually being generated. The high bulk density and moisture content of paddy residue also necessitates adequate storage facilities.
A move away from paddy cultivation has been initiated by state and central governments in the Green Revolution belt as a way to tackle groundwater scarcity and stagnating yields. A centrally sponsored scheme introduced in 2013-14 aimed to diversify a minimum five per cent of the area under paddy to more locally suited crops (e.g. maize, millets and oilseeds) in selected districts. However, despite various provisions under this scheme (cluster demonstrations, awareness trainings, subsidies for farm machinery etc.) most farmers have not found it remunerative to diversify from paddy cultivation to other kharif crops. The prevalent market support and yield advantages paddy enjoys in contrast to other options for kharif cultivation have impeded the successful translation of the policy objectives of crop diversification to results on the fields.
Development of shorter duration paddy varieties
Shorter duration paddy varieties have been developed by research organisations to lower water consumption in paddy cultivation in the Western Indo-Gangetic Plains. Although the conventional varieties (those that take 160 days to mature) still continue to be cultivated for their ability to deliver higher yields, varieties that can mature between 135-145 days are being increasingly adopted. In 2016, a new variety with a maturing time of 125 days was introduced by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) with yield proficiency that is only slightly lower than previously developed varieties. For this reason, there is some speculation on whether the adoption of such varieties could increase the window available between paddy harvest and wheat sowing, giving farmers time to clear the fields and reduce residue burning. However, its effectiveness will need further investigation and greater policy attention.
Options for a way forward
Reducing paddy residue burning will necessitate an integrated approach that addresses biomass management and agriculture policy. On the residue management front, the options currently being explored include provision of subsidies and compensation for not burning, improved supply and leasing of agriculture implements (for harvest, mulching and wheat sowing); technology improvement and demonstration programmes and promotion of residue utilisation for energy generation. Although these are worthwhile options, there are several knowledge gaps that impede the development of an efficient residue management strategy. These would need to be addressed.
First, the range of practices for on-field and end-use options for paddy straw residue need to be investigated and documented. Next, the cost benefit for farmers with regards to different residue management options needs to be investigated as does the techno-commercial feasibility of the various end use options for paddy residue utilisation. An understanding of the organisation of supply chains (collection, storage, transport, pre-processing, conversion and use) and business models will be necessary. For this, dialogues with multi-stakeholders including farmers, aggregators, equipment manufacturers, suppliers, entrepreneurs, and others viz. agri-extension agencies, civil society organisations, R&D institutions would be needed. In parallel, an in-depth study of existing policy, institutional support and technological interventions will need to be undertaken. Together, this will shed light on the most appropriate options and opportunities for sustainable paddy residue management, the barriers in mainstreaming suitable mechanisms, existing trade-offs and synergies as well as the required incentives.
On the other hand, in relation to agriculture policy, a planned and systematic move away from paddy cultivation in the Green Revolution states - which can now be supported by other states, is indicated. Here the Crop Diversification Programme for the Western Indo-Gangetic belt needs a re-look to provide suitable incentives for farmers to pursue alternative crops. These are currently absent. Institutional gaps in research and development (developing viable package of practices, improving productivity), extension (capacity building of farmers and extension of personnel) as well as policy (appropriate market support and prices) and infrastructure (availability of farm equipment and storage) will need to be comprehensively addressed alongside policy inconsistencies to effectively deploy crop diversification in the region.
Additionally, the merits of the shorter duration paddy varieties to extend the time available for clearing fields before wheat sowing and thereby providing an incentive to reduce burning must be assessed – especially since farmers are still averse to diversification from paddy. However, there is no guarantee that they will gain enough from the potential extra time to motivate them to avoid residue burning since other technical, logistic and monetary challenges to residue management may still remain. Nonetheless, while adoption of shorter duration paddy varieties may not be a sufficient measure in itself, it might act as a positive incentive alongside other appropriate institutional supports to avoid residue burning. However, it must be recognised that popularising adoption of shorter duration paddy varieties will mean a trade-off of crop diversification efforts for measures that seem more viable in the short term. Its widespread adoption also requires institutional support, sufficient seed production and availability of the 125 day variety, apart from awareness and sensitisation of farmers.
Nevertheless - whether it is crop diversification or cultivating shorter duration paddy varieties - it is vital that proposed interventions are assessed against the options of cropping systems that they present, rather than in isolation. Furthermore, the resource efficiency and suitability of the proposed interventions (and associated practices) with respect to the existing agro-climatic zones and socio-economic and cultural milieus of states would need to be considered before expansion efforts.
Although stubble burning is mainly viewed as an issue of residue management, the problem is more complex. It is a facet of the agrarian crisis that the region has been facing. A deeper solution lies in re-envisioning agriculture practices and development in the region and re-orienting agri-production towards more sustainable and locally appropriate systems.
An integrated assessment of the prevailing policy and institutional support and imperatives for crop residue management, bio-economy and clean energy, along with natural resource management and sustainable agriculture development would be essential. Farmers' concerns and constraints will have to be respected. Platforms for knowledge sharing between multiple stakeholders across the value chain would need to evolve and priorities and potential trade-offs would have to be made explicit. Such a comprehensive approach will be necessary to develop an effective strategy that facilitates sustainability in paddy residue management and agriculture development in the region.
The author thanks Nirmal Singh (farmer) and TERI colleagues Sunil Dhingra and Avishek Goel for their contribution to discussions on paddy residue management. The author also thanks TERI Distinguished Fellow Mr S Vijay Kumar for his inputs as reviewer.
Goyal, Divya and Damodaran, Harish, 2017, Sustainable Agriculture: Punjab's search for a less water-guzzling, yet high-yielding paddy, Indian Express, March 30, 2017.
Harish Damodaran, 2017, Delhi air pollution: A (crop) burning issue, and the way out, Indian Express, November 10, 2017
Deshpande Sarma, Shilpanjali, 2017, Delhi air pollution: What kind of a challenge is stubble-burning? The crisis decoded, Financial Express, November 16, 2017.