As the thick white smoke, billowing from a corner of the field filled the air, a 63-year-old farmer was busy moving some of the still-burning hay with a shovel. He was spreading it to another corner to allow the flames to spread.
“We have no option but to set our farmlands on fire. We know that it triggers heavy pollution, but the stubble needs to be removed before we prepare the farm for the winter crop,” said Balwant Singh (name withheld on request).
The practice of burning agricultural residue had been banned by the National Green Tribunal two years ago. But it is largely still prevalent across major farming states like Punjab and Haryana.
Before the pollution from these burnt farms reaches Delhi, the farmers say it takes a heavy toll on them and their families. But with little option and despite being aware of the consequences, thousands of villagers across Haryana and Punjab set their farmlands on fire soon after the monsoon retreats.
While the governments in both states have been trying to find a solution to put an end to the practice, Hindustan Times visited some villages, speaking to farmers, government officials and experts in an attempt to find a possible solution.
Solutions from farmers
For the villagers of both Haryana and Punjab, stubble burning has turned out to be a Hobson’s choice. With cost concerns, the short gap between summer and winter crops, lack of incentives from the government and shortage of equipment to manually cut down the stubble, most farmers take to residue burning.
But amid the dark patches, a ray of hope is slowly emerging. Hindustan Times found some farmers who said they have refrained from the practice.
Resham Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Kamalpur village in Patiala district, has cut the stubble of his one-acre plot and lined it up on the side.
“We won’t burn it this year. Instead, we will put water on it and let it decompose and become khaad (manure). Due to government pressure, most farmers this time will not go for the quick-fix solution,” he said.
His nephew Dharmender Singh said that a little more government help could make it easier for them to dispose the stubble without burning. “We get five hours of electricity a day. Instead, if we get power for eight hours, we can pour water on the parali (crop stubble) to turn it into khaad,” he said.
At Behmna village, smoke from farmer Darshan Singh’s farm could be seen from a distance. However, he claimed he was not burning freshly cut stubble. “This one is from last year. The residue from this year has been put on the edge and won’t be burnt. We are not breaking any law,” the 52-year-old said.
In Haryana, too, hope seems to be emerging.
“This time we have decided to cut the stubble and store it. It would be fed to the cattle in the days to come,” said Angrez Singh, a farmer from Karnal.
Government offers options
Stacks of briquettes made from of stubble are seen lying in a corner of a farm at Jundla village in Haryana. Villagers said that a private liquor company has asked them not to burn these, and that they would be purchased.
“Haryana Liquors Pvt Ltd came up with this proposal last year. They undertook a pilot project last year which proved to be successful. This year, they have already purchased 200 tonnes of stubble and have set a target to buy 5,000 tonnes. It would be used to fuel their furnaces,” said a senior official of the Haryana Pollution Control Board.
With an estimated 35 million tonnes of stubble burnt across Punjab and Haryana, 5,000 tonnes seems a small figure, but officials said that at least they had a start. An acre of paddy farm yields around two tonnes of stubble.
“Who would burn this stubble to create pollution if there’s another alternative?” asks Amrinder Singh, a villager in Kurukshetra.
Officials in Punjab and Haryana said that some companies have been showing interest in buying the stubble, which could be used to co-fuel power and biomass plants.
“We are ready to sell it off. But someone has to collect it. We can’t cut it, stack it and take it to the buyers. It would be next to impossible. But if someone comes to us to purchase the stubble, we are ready to help them. It would be easier for us,” Singh added.
Experts weigh in
Hindustan Times spoke to a number of experts who claimed that till the time stubble is considered a waste, farmers would burn it. The only way out is to treat it as a resource.
“We have to put an economic value on the stubble first. Only then can we think of putting it to use,” said Polash Mukerjee, senior research associate (air pollution) at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Experts from CSE and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) said that a business module and market needs to be developed to do away with stubble burning. TERI had also submitted a set of suggestions to the Ministry of Environment and Forests two months ago.
“Unless we develop a market and a business module, this is expected continue. Some companies have shown interest to buy the stubble. But due to lack of a proper mechanism, it remains in the field and the farmers can’t sell it off,” said Sumit Sharma, associate director, TERI.
The Punjab Electricity Regulatory Commission has already modified the tariff for power from biogas plants. In May 2016, the tariff was increased from less than ₹7, and was fixed at ₹8.30 per unit. This has been announced to provide better incentives for farmers to sell their stubble.
Burning the stubble in power generating plants or other industries as co-fuel would generate less pollution as these industries need to follow emission norms. “They use electrostatic precipitators which can reduce the pollution by more than 90%,” said Sharma.
Experts said that proper mechanism and infrastructure needs to be developed through which aggregators can collect the stubble from the fields and store them in warehouses. This could be used throughout the year.
“The constant availability is necessary because power plants would need a supply of this fuel throughout the year. Just providing them with the fuel for a few months would not be helpful. It will not be sustainable,” said Mukerjee.
Bagasse, pellets and briquette made out of stubble could be used for other purposes as well, such as in the cardboard industry.
“Nearly 300 million households across India use firewood as fuel in their kitchens. These pellets and briquettes could be used instead. Pollution from these products is significantly less than firewood,” said Mukerjee.
Solutions may be there, but the change cannot be expected overnight. Experts said the development of a comprehensive interdepartmental policy is need of the hour.
“District-level planning committees need to be developed. They would have to come up with region-based plans on how to utilise the stubble. A single business module may not be applicable everywhere,” said Sharma.