An organised, robust response to stubble burning is need of the hour

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One way to solve North India’s air pollution is not to keep feeling it but to keep fighting while learning from it. Although blankets of smog envelop the capital’s skies in November-December, poor AQI is an all-year-round phenomenon. One of the top five factors contributing to pollution is stubble (parali) burning, in a list including vehicular emissions, industrial emissions, power plants and dust. The need of the hour is an informally assembled but professionally focused team aligned by ideas and supported by institutions convened by outcome-oriented individuals that funnels into one think-do-tank.

Paddy is sown across 74 lakh acres of farmland in Punjab, generating a staggering 222 lakh tonnes of stubble (about 3,000 kg of stubble per acre). Industrial farming and coercive legislation have shrunk the time between harvesting paddy and sowing the next crop of wheat to 30 days. This combined with no economic incentive to manage stubble, means that farmers in Punjab burn their stubble all at once between mid-October to mid-November. The farmer is forced to burn stubble since managing it would burn a hole through his already poor pocket. Farmers know that burning of stubble leads to soil de-nutriment, kills microorganisms and insects like earthworms which are essential for soil health, but are not aware of the indirect costs of burning.

The Punjab farmer grows paddy to lower the risk to his income. The prices of other crops can vary wildly every year, vegetables routinely go from Re 1/kg to Rs 100/kg year on year, sometimes even lower than the cost to transport the produce to the market. The MSP (Minimum Support Price) for rice is around Rs 20 per kg. This and large-scale procurement for wheat and rice guarantees a minimum income for the farmer. After the green revolution, there is extensive technology and knowledge available on fertilisers, seeds, weeding and growth cycles of wheat and paddy. When it comes to other crops like oilseeds, millets and dalhan, there’s neither MSP, nor large scale procurement, nor additional knowledge and technology that has updated and prepared the farming community on risks and benefits.

The solutions have to be viable, decentralised and scientific but for them to be truly sustainable they have to be economically viable for the farmer and markets where they engage. The stakeholders in this multi-dimensional iterative game of incentives and disincentives are the farmers, cooperatives, government, bureaucracy, private markets, civil society, academia and media. Rather than working and proposing solutions in their own silos, all of them have to come together and work towards a multi-dimensional solution; one that works across all scales and timelines. The private sector that includes markets, startups and businesses has to get involved to generate value from waste.

First and foremost, farmer education on sustainable alternatives is as necessary as actually providing them. Happy Seeders and Super Seeders do in-situ planting of the next crop. Presently, the machines are expensive and the key concern is that they may be lying idle the rest of the year. The farmer needs to be educated through state and media instruments that these machines will enrich organic content in the farm and ensure cost savings. They reduce the need for fertilisers and insecticides amounting to Rs 1,500 to 2,000 per acre. One such machine can cover up to 200 acres, making it all the more necessary for the governance pyramid to throw itself into action and manage stubble from bottom-up.

Traditionally, farmers have fed wheat stubble to cows and believe that rice parali is not palatable to them. There are apprehensions in dairy farms specific to Punjab about feeding paddy straw residue to animals due to genetically modified varieties of rice residue being undesirable. A more consolidated dissemination of information to dairy associations and gaushalas that debunk such myths is needed. Of the 30 states in India, 28 have rice and farmers especially in South India feed their cows rice parali gladly. A consensus among farmers is also that rice stubble mixed with greens and jaggery is palatable to cows. A cow eats 6 to 8 kgs of dry fodder in a day and with 25.3 lakh cows and 40.2 lakh buffaloes in Punjab (as per the 2019 Census), 41 lakh tons of stubble can be consumed in just three months in Punjab alone. That is 20 per cent of the parali generated!

Dry-fodder costs between Rs 2-5 per kg but de facto fodder prices escalated to as high as Rs 18 per kg this year in May in several states. Dairy farms and gaushalas we spoke to said they’d be happy to procure it reasonably and happily at Rs 2 per kg from the farmers. Large cow shelters in fodder deficit areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat with tens of thousands of cattle are willing to procure lakhs of kilograms of rice parali and transport it to their site at their cost. Pathankot has successfully implemented feeding parali to cows and had no field burnings since 2019. Feeding parali to cows, will give money in the hands of the farmers, and would truly be of service to cows.

Third, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has developed a proprietary microbial solution called ‘Pusa’ which decomposes crop residue and turns it into manure in a little over a fortnight. Priced at Rs 20 a packet and comprising 8 strains of fungi, this product can greatly slash down dependence on factory made fertilisers that pollute groundwater resources. Chhattisgarh’s idea of ‘Gauthans’ or farmer cooperatives should be borrowed heavily, allowing farming groups to operate like entrepreneurs on panchayat land. The government should allow 5 acres of arid or banjar land in each panchayat to be used for composting of agricultural waste and should subsidise capital equipment for this.

Gauthans can buy parali from farmers at Rs 2 per kg and can sell the fertiliser back to the farmers at Rs 5 per kg which compares favourably to the cost of organic fertiliser in the villages. Community composting will give a huge systemic push towards better utilisation of farm waste locally, without disrupting the economy or burning a hole in the pockets of the Indian farmer. This is a gracious win-win cycle for everyone involved and crucially has sustainable economics for years to come.

Finally, using stubble for power plants must be explored. Interestingly, both the Centre and state government of Punjab have announced a mandatory requirement of power generation using agri-waste. The cost of coal landed in Punjab is about Rs 5,000 per ton (Rs 5/kg) with a gross calorific value (GCV) of 4000 KCal (16.8 MJ). The fact that parali’s calorific value is 14-15 MJ/kg must be highlighted by the media. It can be procured at Rs 2/kg from farmers and delivered at site for Rs 3/kg. A major problem for power plants, which are geared towards centralised procurement and making payments of crores to their vendors, is the decentralised procurement parali, payments of thousands of farmers and transport logistics.

If farmer cooperatives become a single point of contact for power plants to buy parali, and CSR mandates are applied to coordinate logistics, industry-farm ties can be established and will reduce stubble burning to save North India from air pollution. Connecting the dots between state-run and private power plants, the state’s electricity department and ensuring logistics and operations of stubble delivery to the power plants from farmers can solve a large part of the problem and deliver upon government mandates of using 10 per cent biomass as a source of energy.

Further, there are many solutions that exist to use straw and other agricultural waste as fuel for industry. This includes briquettes, bio-char, pellets, bio-gas, bio-diesel and other such products that can be utilised across the industry spectrum. Stubble that is burning relentlessly on farm lands and choking the lungs of residents of North India can replace coal in brick kilns and smelters and make the environment better on the margins.

Sustainable management of 2.22 crore tonnes of stubble can increase every Punjabi farmer’s income by 10 per cent and generate tremendous benefits to industries and jobs. The spatial and temporal nature of this problem at multiple scales and timelines requires a multi-pronged solution. State, district and block level teams can maintain a log of all fires with date, area, geo-tag and quantum of burning using satellites and each panchayat can pass resolutions against burning fields, and impose self-imposed but state-monitored non-criminal penalties. This, when combined with citizen-centric legislative action, reduction in state power, increased efforts in crop diversification and strategically designed mechanisation done at scale will sustain the agrarian economy as well as the environment.  The only way to solve the problem is to rise above politics, do a scientific deep-dive and propose multi-pronged solutions which have favourable unit economics for the Farmer.

How we use our waste, what we do with our time and how we engage with our governments determines how soon we will die and how well we will live. We are in the Fitzgeraldian roaring twenties once again where it does seem like we are doomed to misery but we must be determined to make things better, especially by those who possess unopposable minds. The solutions to the complex problem of stubble burning exist and are practised in small pockets. These solutions are not known widely and are not practised effectively due to differing incentive structures. By connecting the dots which were hidden or disconnected, citizens will breathe easier in Delhi and live better in Punjab.

Roshan Shankar has been an advisor in the Delhi government since 2015. He holds two graduate degrees in public policy and engineering from Stanford University and was formerly an RA with MIT JPAL. He is currently also a PhD candidate at Princeton University working on sustainable, resilient and healthy cities. 

Prasun Bansal holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Management from IIT Delhi, Stanford and IIM-Ahmedabad respectively. Previously he has worked with NASA and Boeing. His research focus lies in design and development of self sustaining systems and multidisciplinary optimization. 

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An organised, robust response to stubble burning is need of the hour
An organised, robust response to stubble burning is need of the hour
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