Stubble burning is being discouraged for its massive pollution impact. For the moment though, despite wheat and paddy stubble burning destroying the soil and causing severe heat stress on farmland, the cultivators cannot change this farming tradition, they say. Subsidies for agri equipment, such as happy seeder or rotavor that can sow seeds without the need to remove the remains of the paddy stubble, haven't reached most farmers. Wheat farmers who can afford it use a reaper that costs around Rs 2 lakh. It only leaves a short stubble close to the ground that is burnt by most or ploughed back into the soil by some. Those who plough the stubble into the soil are not happy because, they claim, this method can damage the paddy seedlings. Plus, ploughing back is often labour and time intensive.
Satellite images show fires have just started in Punjab and Haryana, though Karan Avtar Singh, chief secretary of the state, insisted, "Only 5 to 10 incidents have been reported this season. Many panchayats have assured us of zero stubble burning."
But Rattan Singh Mann, Haryana chief of Bharatiya Kisan Union, admitted, "We recently courted arrest when we set our fields on fire." He explained that wheat can be cut low to leave less stubble, but all alternatives to burning the rice stalks was too expensive.
Among the options, the stubble doesn't have many takers as fodder either. "Cattle don't eat stubble because of the frequent fuel spill during cropping," explained Ramanjaneyulu GV, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
At the root of the pollution-causing problem is Punjab and Haryana's wheat-paddy combination. After harvesting paddy in October, burning the residue is the quickest way to prepare the field for wheat sowing in late October or November. "Rice cultivation should be banned in these regions, but not many agree with me," said Mann. Rice plant stubble is not the only problem, paddy requires a lot of water too. "Farmers here have to dig down 400 feet to get water," revealed Mahtab Kadyan, another farmer leader.
At Jundla village, Sulakhan Singh Kamboj argued, "We cannot plant replacement crops such as oilseeds or pulses unless the government procures our produce at good prices. Last year I planted peas that I finally sold at Rs 5 per kilo. That did not even cover the labour cost."
Farmers with the Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab are, however, gradually moving away from paddy. They claim not to burn the wheat stubble also, but "either make manure of it or mulch it", according to Umendra Dutt, KVM member.
Recent NASA images show large fires in Madhya Pradesh and parts of east India. According to Ramanjaneyulu, these could be signs of forest fires, stubble burning or slash-and-burn cultivation. "Wheat stubble burning across the country is on the rise because getting labour to deal with it is tedious and expensive," he added.