The paddy harvesting season is almost at hand. Of the remaining two options of using seeders to plant wheat without ridding the field of the stubble — besides deploying other machinery — and employing bio-decomposers to degrade the remnants, the two state governments are in favour of the latter. The farmers, however, find the bio-decomposer impractical to use.
This could pose a challenge for the AAP government in Delhi, which has earlier been critical of the Punjab and Haryana governments for not doing enough to control the farm fires which cause smog to envelop Delhi in winter. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, the first episode of smog is often triggered by large-scale stubble burning.
Pusa solution takes a month to work, not ideal for short window between 2 crops
Last winter had two to three-fold more rainfall than usual but Delhi recorded the longest smog episode in four years that lasted for 10 days. It had started building up from Diwali (November 4, 2021). Such acute smog episodes had lasted six days in the winter of 2018-19, eight days in 2019-20 and seven days in 2020-21. With the stubble being burned, there were a total of 25 severe or worse polluted days last winter as against 20 in the winter of 2020-21 and 25 in 2019-20.
The Pusa decomposer, developed at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, is a microbial spray for in-situ management of crop stubble. It decomposes and converts the remains of the harvest into a natural nutrient for the soil. The problem, according to farmers, is that the decomposer takes 30 days or more to work when there is only a very small window between the rice harvest and the sowing of the wheat crop. For the cultivators, spraying bio-decomposers is an additional “impractical, useless step” that requires time and labour and increases worries due to the shortened window between the crops. So, while the crop residue management machinery, including seeders, may work to an extent, bio-decomposers are not practical for farmers.
“It’s a big no for most of the farmers because they don’t have the time to spare,” said Gurmail Singh of Jasso Majra in Patiala district. “We would rather use machines. Those who can’t afford the special machines will be forced to resort to stubble burning.”
The Delhi government has for the last few years tried to demonstrate the efficacy of the bio-decomposer solution by roping in farmers in Delhi without much success. Satyavan Sehrawat, a farmer in Dariyapur Kalan, northwest Delhi, who has begun harvesting his 40 acres of paddy, said the long time the Pusa decomposer took to work last year led to losses for those who tried it. “The decomposer takes at least 45 days to work. A farmer also has to ensure there is enough moisture in the field and employ a rotavator or plough to mulch the stubble into the soil. Since the decomposer is fungal, it gets activated only if there’s moisture in the field. Even two days of direct sunlight can spoil it,” he claimed.
A couple of months ago, the AAP government in Punjab had prepared a plan with the party’s government in Delhi to provide a cash incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre to farmers for not burning the stalks of rice harvest, with an outlay of Rs 1,875 crore for farmers cultivating 75 lakh acres. The Punjab and Delhi governments were to pay Rs 500 per acre each (Rs 375 crore each) of the incentive with the Centre expected to contribute the remaining Rs 1,500 per acre. That plan has now been shelved.
The Centre was, perhaps, apprehensive of the fact that if cash incentives were given to the Punjab farmers, similar demands would be made by farmers in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where, too, rice harvest remnants are burned at the onset of winter.
“The process of decomposing takes up to three weeks, which is the overall window between paddy harvesting and sowing of the new wheat crop,” pointed out Ajmer Singh Dhatt, research director, Punjab Agriculture University. Besides, the agriculture department has claimed it can make bio-decomposers available for trials in only 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) while rice is cultivated in over 75 lakh acres (30 lakh hectares) in Punjab. The remnants of the rice harvest were burned in around 15.6 lakh hectares (51% of the cultivation area) last year though this was the lowest in the last few years, said experts.
So far, Punjab has received Rs 1,145 crore as subsidy from the Centre for the CRM machinery and spent Rs 935 crore in providing 90,422 machines to farmers. These include seeders, the use of which does not require the field to be cleared of the remains of the previous harvest. For 2022-23, the state has got a subsidy of Rs 240 crore for 32,100 machines, taking the total subsidy to Rs 1,385 crore for 1.2 lakh machines.
“Trials with decomposers were conducted at Pusa in Delhi. Two other privately prepared decomposers were also tried. It was found that if the solutions are mixed with water and sprayed on the crop stubble without ploughing the remnants into the soil, full decomposition doesn’t take place,” said Dhatt. “Such results could be obtained by using rotavators or other machinery.” He said, this entire process could take over 25 days, time that the farmers do not have.
While Dhatt said that he would not recommend the use of bio-decomposers, Punjab agriculture director Gurvinder Singh said that more trials would be carried out, and if the results were encouraging, the area subjected to the method would be increased from the next season. “Subsidy has been provided for a sufficient number of machines to control the fires. Government officials and field staff have been asked to prevail upon farmers not to burn residue,” he said.