Quenching the fields – Exploring solutions rather than announcing bans could douse the fires

If we really want to solve a problem, we should define it carefully, and use data to guide our actions. If we want to reduce Delhi’s winter air pollution, then we need to address biomass burning. Yet, a recent TV clipping shows a farmer setting paddy straw ablaze on national TV. The voiceover says “These farmers could face FIRs, fines and even jail, but they don’t care. Doing it on camera is a statement.”

Yes, we hear you loud and clear.

Unilateral bans don’t work. Perhaps we should understand why farmers burn, and then see what solutions exist or can be developed.

Why do farmers burn?

Farmers burn the waste for two reasons:

First, they have a very short window of time – a week or two at the most – to clear their fields and prepare for the winter crop. The crop harvesters leave a fair bit of stubble on the field. Popular sowing machinery does not work with the straw piles on the field, so it is important to get it out of the way fast. But removing the stubble is an expensive or impossible task – given that the machinery is either unavailable or unaffordable for small farmers and labour (a bigger issue for larger farmers) is either too expensive or more likely, just not available. The only “viable” option is burning the stubble.

Second, even if they did not burn, farmers are either unsure of what to do with the straw piles or believe that the cost of removing the stubble far exceeds any alternate use. The cost incurred by not burning is borne by the farmer alone, while the benefits of not burning are shared by all. Economists term this problem a free-rider effect. It makes action almost impossible, unless the person who enjoys the benefit is made to bear (as least some part of) the cost.

The cost of burning is real and felt in the lungs of the Nation’s capital.

So, how do we douse the fires?

Back to the Future.

Let us travel back in time to see when (and why) the seeds of this crisis were planted.

Earlier, before the onset of extensive irrigation, the farmers did not grow a single giant crop like rice or wheat. They grew multiple crops at the same time. This would have made mechanization impractical, but then, farmers relied on the bullock, for whom the crop leftovers were food. Moreover, labour was plentiful, as the city did not beckon as it does now. Manmade fertilizer was not so plentifully available nor so cheap, so farmers used compost, made from crop residue and bullock dung, to keep their soil healthy and productive.

The crop fed the farmer and the village. The crop waste fed the bullock. The bullock did the labour, and its dung was wonderful manure, or food for the next crop. The straw waste also made excellent roofing material.

There was no burning, because everything was used. The circular economy in action.

But the Green revolution, which has skyrocketed yields and made India food-import-independent, upended this equilibrium.

Punjab is the gleaming success symbol of this revolution with extensive irrigation, high degrees of mechanization, great connectivity between farm and mandis and a fantastic procurement system.

But in the seams of the success lie the seeds of trouble.

Punjab’s extensive irrigation infrastructure is driven primarily (~ 80% ) by ground water. Combine this with free electricity, and you have the explanation of the shocking depletion of the water table – over 80% of Punjab’s groundwater blocks are overexploited.

“Punjab is not meant to grow paddy. Because of free electricity, we grow paddy” says Aashish Ahuja, a farmer who manages 90 acres in Punjab. “It’s ironic. We don’t eat rice here, and yet we export our water when we grow rice and sell it out of the state.”

The highly effective procurement system which pays ready cash has meant farmers want to grow rice and wheat but little else. Single-crop, mechanized farming has become so easy – Ahuja says farmers need be at the farm for only two weeks a year.

Anirudh Vashishth, a farmer trying to shift to multi-cropping, says the lure of mono-cropping is too tempting: “Many farmers don’t want to change. It’s easy and the product will be sold in a minute.”

Moreover, over 80% of Punjab’s farmers – small and large – are highly indebted, making them unwilling, or financially unable, to try diversification: The market risk is too high for the farmers to bear.

Instead, Farmers grow crops in rapid succession, burning the stubble to prepare fields quickly. Subsidised fertilizer has camouflaged the ravages to soil fertility until now, when poor soil health and erosion are becoming harder to ignore. The burning fields are visible from space and suffocate the Nation’s capital.

This is not sustainable.

What are we going to do to change the equilibrium?

Souring the milk

Asking farmers to go off paddy is a stupid request – why should they? Especially when they get the water to flood their fields for free.

For the same reason, asking farmers to adopt the SRI-method of rice cultivation will fail. Systematic Rice Intensification (SRI) is a way of growing rice that uses much less water but is tricky and requires careful handling of weeds. Why should Punjab’s farmers, used to easy farming, take the extra effort (and cost) to save something which is free?

In earlier days, when breastfeeding mothers wanted to wean their particularly clingy babies, some applied lemon juice to their breasts to “sour the milk”. To wean farmers off the lure of paddy, one option is to price electricity. Given that the irrigation is overwhelmingly run by groundwater pumps, this would sour the paddy-proposition.

Many believe that it would be political suicide to price electricity in Punjab. But perhaps they should recall that Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have introduced pricing for electricity for farmers. It has not caused a backlash (although the circumstances were different).

A high MSP for paddy and subsidised fertilizer also need to bear their share of the blame for promoting paddy cultivation. But hold that thought, we will come back to it.

If we were to stick with paddy, what then? What are the solutions to make paddy farming more sustainable – at least from an air pollution angle?

It costs between Rs. 600 to Rs. 2000 per acre to clear a field of straw depending on whether a farmer opts for manual or machine clearing. What can make farmers bear this cost?

Bans won’t work. Moral arguments won’t work. Economic sustainability: i.e., making the “waste” into a resource – a la a cotton spinning mill – might.

Treating Waste as a Resource

Enter biogas.

Dr Poonam Pandey, who worked on a project exploring options to stop straw burning with Maastricht University, agrees biogas is a potential solution. One big bottleneck, she believes, to crafting solutions is the different participants – industry, farmers, government and other institutions – working in silos.

Biogas is natural gas – the stuff we can use to light our stoves – generated from biomass, such as food waste, cow dung or paddy straw. Bio gas is generated when a special sort of bacteria digests the biomass. I have had a small biogas plant at home for nearly a year to manage my food waste – it works like a charm, and needs very little maintenance. The technology is scalable, and so it is puzzling why this has not taken off as a solution.

Several studies have shown that pre-treating paddy straw and then subjecting it to bacterial digestion generates biogas that can be economically sustainable.

Som Narayan, cofounder of Carbon Masters, a Bangalore-based start-up making a living out of generating biogas agrees that biogas can absolutely work with paddy straw. He says “A tonne of straw can generate three times as much biogas as a tonne of cow dung. But the problem is pre-treatment. Microbes find the straw hard to digest and need the material pre-treated before using. This increases the cost.”

Another issue is seasonality: the straw will come twice a year – after the summer and winter crops, but a biogas plant needs feed material throughout the year. One solution, says Som, is to “pickle” the material, store and use it for the whole year. But this again adds to cost.

Samir Nagpal who runs Sampurn Agriventure, the only biogas plant in the area that works off paddy straw, blames a different problem entirely. He says the economics of his biogas plant work only if he sells the compost it generates as a by-product. Organic compost, black gold as some call it, is amongst the most expensive (and effective) fertilizers available, retailing at between Rs. 8-10 per kg. This is a problem –farmers, traditionally fearing a new face, are wary of buying expensive black “stuff” from a new entrant, and can moreover make the compost themselves.

Biogas can address two problems at once: (a) Air pollution and (b) India’s looming gas shortages – which makes it a worthwhile option to consider.

What else?

Other uses, include feeding straw to thermal plants, making pellets of the straw that can burned later, or making roofing sheets from the straw.

But making biogas or the other options feasible means we need to make it easy for farmer to collect and transport their straw. The short time available to harvest the straw complicates economics. Making the machinery more easily available can be accomplished with equipment banks or start-ups. And start-up interest in creating a shared economy in farm machinery is exploding.

Rohtash Mal, who co-founded EM3, a rental platform for farm machinery, says “We are not short of machines. We are short of people who deliver the machines.”

The burning ban has created a need for collecting the straw. Now we need a solution to service the need. The farmers are being asked to bear an additional cost.

Alekh Sanghera, who runs Farmart, an on-demand agri-machinery renting portal, and “Ola for Farmers”, if you will, believes giving farmers a subsidy to rent the machines would help. But he is very clear that the subsidy is to be paid to the farmer through a Direct Benefit Transfer, after verification that the field was not burned. “Today, the technology exists to granularly check if a farm was set ablaze or not”, he says. “Paying the subsidy to the machinery manufacturer, will only jack up prices, not ensure usage. While paying a per-acre subsidy after verifying the field was not burned will ensure compliance.”

Given the magnitude of the problem, what other solutions can work at scale?

Back-to-the soil

Mr. Mal, of EM3, says, “We use only the top 6” of a plant for food, everything else should go back to the soil.”

One way to manage the straw is doing nothing. Leave it on the field and plant the next crop. No till agriculture, apart from eliminating burning and the need to transport and process the straw, greatly improves soil quality. India in general, and Punjab in particular has very low levels of organic carbon in its soil. Higher organic content is associated with everything from higher yields, less erosion, better water holding capacity and even lowering the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The straw on the field prevents the current sowers from working because their blades are caught in the straw clumps.  One work-around is the Happy Seeder, a machine which sows even with straw on the fields and is cost-effective.

Another elegant solution was proposed by Raspinder Singh, a farmer managing 17 acres of paddy: Use a fast-growing paddy variety, which can be harvested a couple of weeks earlier. This gives farmers the time to wet the straw and soil, and using machinery, incorporate the straw into the soil. Mr. Singh has tried this approach this year, by substituting the commonly used, water-guzzling variant of rice, Pusa-44 with a faster growing variant, PRC 126.

But there is a hitch.

PRC 126 has a lower yield, though Mr. Singh says the lower costs, helps keep profitability on par with growing Pusa-44. However, market acceptance for PRC 126 has been less than for Pusa-44. Here, opinion shapers such as Punjab University can step in, and get traders to give a fair chance to faster growing variants.

In both options, machinery cost and availability are bottlenecks.

Subsidising machinery rental (vs capital costs) and educating farmers through videos will help.

One farmer, who asked not to be named said this: “We have been listening to the university people. Who taught us to grow the rice? Who taught us to use our pumps to flood the fields? Who taught us to clear the fields. Let them come and teach us now to do things differently.”

Going Natural

Umendra Dutt, Executive Director of the Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), asks “We call our home ‘Mother Earth’, how can we burn our Mother?”.

Umm…because it’s easy and cheap?

Mr. Dutt proposes natural farming, which uses inputs like cow dung, compost and neem, with an emphasis on multi-cropping as an effective alternative to paddy and straw burning. The farmers I spoke with and who practise natural farming are large and very articulate. Perhaps they have the wherewithal and the acumen to take the risk. All agree the first few years of making the transition are not easy. All practise organic farming on a fraction of their entire holdings, suggesting the economics don’t make sense to switch over completely.

When asked why don’t more farmers practise natural farming, the replies were curiously similar.

“Why would you try anything else?” says Mr. Ahuja, “when the returns are so high with “chemical farming?”.

Besides, every farmer I spoke with said market access (or lack thereof) was the number#1 bottleneck to natural farming taking off. In rice and wheat, procurement is assured, and cash is quick. In natural farming, the task of convincing the customer is too much for the farmer. Especially given the many charlatans who sell “certified” organic food, who bring suspicion into the buyer’s mind.

Mr. Rajeev Kohli of KVM, organizes 10 farmers markets across Punjab every week where 20-30 farmers come to sell their natural produce. This is a good first step. But how to scale it?

“Only when corporates who sell chemicals feel organic is important and profitable, then only the change will come”, he quipped.

Mr. Ahuja remains hopeful. He says awareness of the harm of indiscriminate use of pesticide is spreading far and wide, and even people in his town, Abohar (which he says is known as the second dirtiest town in Punjab), take whatever organic produce he farms.

Maybe the corporates should pay heed.

The second bottleneck cited was the higher labour requirement for natural farming. One way to avoid pesticides is to go in for multi-cropping, but this means mechanized sowing and harvest become less economical. Not using chemical pesticides means more labour for plucking out weeds.

Mr. Vashishth said that while his input costs almost halved with organic farming, the requirement of labour was 4 times that required in chemical farming – a deal breaker in a state like Punjab, where agricultural labour is hard to get. Machinery rental companies can help here. Investing in machinery for smaller plots may not make sense, but renting might.

No Easy Answers but a suite of potential solutions

As the tiny particles from the burnt straw in Punjab and Haryana enters the lungs of the children in our Nation’s capital, one thing is clear: we need to solve this problem.

More than 30 million tonnes of straw stand to be burned in these two states. That’s a lot of smoke. I will conclude with a provocative thought: We are subsidising the farmers to burn, by providing subsidies on water, fertilizer and MSPs, all of which makes the rice crop far larger than market forces would have allowed. Transferring some part of this subsidy to a “straw-harvest” subsidy could help align the financial incentives of both farmer and the sufferers of the air pollution.

There are no easy answers, but focussing on scalable solutions, rather than bans, is where a meaningful conversation could start.


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