In Punjab’s paddy fields: Where the seeders are happy but the farmers are not

Evening was coming on; a yellow full moon hung over the Patiala road as a cool breeze swept across the land. All day we had been flanked by ...

Evening was coming on; a yellow full moon hung over the Patiala road as a cool breeze swept across the land. All day we had been flanked by green paddy fields, ready for harvest. But things were about to change. As the darkness descended, we saw at a distance, pyre-like fires. We sped up only to discover that the fires extended across swathes of open land, a landscape that was an open oven billowing twisted columns of smoke.

This was it, the parali zone, and the flames we were looking at were at least a big part of the reason for the winter season’s extreme pollution in north India. Carefully, I walked into the burning remains of one harvested paddy crop, hoping to find the farmer who had done this.

There was nobody home; the smoke doesn’t agree with most people, and farmers who face fines for stubble-burning are now understandably weary of nosey strangers.

Other fields were lit up too and the highway was pretty much cloaked in smoke. It was like standing in a crematorium, bathed in smoke and resigned to it.

It was in rural Ludhiana the next morning that we met Raspinder Singh at Sherpur Kalan. We sat around bags of freshly harvested ragi, Raspinder’s blue kurta providing a cheery contrast to the earthy surroundings. “Paddy came to our fields only in the 1970s. Before we grew cotton, bajra, wheat, etc. The government encouraged us to grow a crop that largely we don’t eat,” he said.

Raspinder’s terse summary stands true for most of Punjab. Sherpur Kalan, and Punjab, changed to paddy; today over 80 percent of villagers grow the crop and end up burning the stubble.

The government’s solution to this growing problem is agri-machinery, including the Happy and Super Seeders. These straw management machineries are backed by policy makers as well as agricultural institutions, with subsidies and rental schemes meant to incentivize farmers. Crop diversification and paddy straw biomass-based solutions like making briquettes for thermal power plants have also done the rounds.

Many in Punjab agree that by burning straw we are wasting a precious resource, disrupting natural cycles and increasing inputs costs too each year. Image courtesy: Indra Shekhar Singh

It’s not a very happy story for the Happy Seeders; many farmers who could afford these Rs 1.5 lakh machines have also made the shift away from paddy while the poorer ones just can’t afford them.

Said Harinder Singh, a paddy farmer, “Diesel is nearing Rs 100 per litre and we can’t bear to run Happy-Seeder or Super-Seeders as they consume 10 litres+ per hour. I can’t even borrow a happy seeder, because that adds over Rs 1,500 to my per acre cost, and takes a lot more time,” he said.

The sun was well up when we caught up with two harvester owners busy mulching a paddy field. “It now takes Rs 2,500 per acre additionally to mulch the straw alone. And small farmers in the area can’t afford that. Our operation has really suffered,” said Tajinder Singh, a 50-year-old harvester owner. Just then, puffs of milky smoke drifted upwards. Tajinder smiled at us; we felt like conspirators.

His partner, Gurbir Singh, spoke up, “With an average of 10 acres covered a day, two or three straw management machines per village are not enough to control the stubble problem. In a week’s time, most of this area will be up in flames.”

Most regions in Punjab are in a race against time, to harvest, sell and sow the next crop. But how much time really? We stopped at a rural mandi in Moga. Despite a below-average paddy season, the mandi was full of migrants from Jharkhand to Uttar Pradesh, sorting, drying, packing tonnes of paddy. “For a good wheat crop, wheat needs to be sowed before 15 November. For potato farmers even earlier. Many of these farmers spend their Diwali nights at the mandi and then race back to sow wheat,” Sukhjinder Singh Khosa told us at the mandi.

“Instead of agri-machinery companies, farmers should be given Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) as price support against rising fuel and input costs. No farmer in Punjab wants to burn stubble,” Khosa said.

Another two days of chasing smoke signals and walking through charred fields got us the same answers: No farmer wants to burn paddy straw, but almost none can afford alternatives. That birthed a whole new question: why would a state willingly destroy its soil, water and environment to grow paddy it doesn’t eat? What is the paddy economy all about?

“The state and Central government only have one solution - agri machinery. But they forget that machines caused this problem. The combine harvester is also at the root of the problem,” said veteran economist from Punjab, professor Ranjit Singh Ghuman. We spoke for hours on the paddy economy and its consequences.

Today over 80 percent of villagers in Punjab grow the crop and end up burning the stubble. Image courtesy: Indra Shekhar Singh

“Punjab is exporting water, not paddy alone. With billions of litres of water exported each year, many regions are now water scarce. Under the government’s direction paddy went from nine percent to over 85 percent of the Kharif crop area. The government cannot suddenly abandon paddy farmers now. Punjab has already paid a heavy ecological price for feeding India. Farmers have suffered too,” the professor explained.

But if the paddy farmers are not profiting from this model, where does the money trail lead? Professor Ghuman has a ready answer: “Machinery manufacturers, the bureaucracy, and to some extent, agri-scientists are responsible for this decision. They have become a pressure group to influence the stubble-burning policy; that is why other alternatives are not being promoted.”

In the Far East many years ago, natural farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka had commented on paddy straw in One Straw Revolution. “Straw connects everything,” he said, “with fertility, germination, with weeds, with keeping away sparrows and water management.” Hand cutting and mulching straw were vital to the Fukuoka method. Many in Punjab agree that by burning straw we are wasting a precious resource, disrupting natural cycles and increasing inputs costs too each year.

But is natural/regenerative model viable? Can other farmers in the region shift away from chemical farming?

Surrounded by thousand acres of paddy, Raja Sanga, a middle-aged organic small farmer, shows his open secret. His six-acre acre farm has healthy stands of sugarcane and green turmeric. Yellowish paddy straw was mulched across the field and inter-planted with sugarcane, garlic, turmeric and green fennel seed. Picking up some paddy straw, Raja began, “Paddy straw is my fertilizer. My yields are comparable to any chemical farmer, plus inter-cropping helps get better incomes for my small farm.”

Straw mulching – basically shredding the straw and mixing it back into the fields  –  over the years has turned the soil of Sanga’s farm dark and thick, the envy of local farmers. “Once you work with nature, she helps you back. People are burning straw without realising its benefits. Industrial agriculture has destroyed our Punjab, and stubble-burning is another symptom,” he said.

The highway, pretty much cloaked in smoke, was like standing in a crematorium, bathed in smoke and resigned to it. Image courtesy: Indra Shekhar Singh

Sanga told us about the Kheti Virasat Mission, and how farmers across the state are reverting to organic farming. They have moved away from stubble-burning, and in fact help by decomposing additional paddy stubble on their farms.

“If the government can even provide half the needed support to organic farmers, the water, nutrition and stubble problem can be solved. Our policies should work with nature, not against her,” said Sanga.

With Sanga’s words as an epitaph and prognosis, we took to the highway. Evening had fallen, and Punjab’s paddy fields were alight again.

Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst and former director - Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @Indrassingh

 

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