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With winter approaching, spectre of stubble burning hangs over Punjab, Haryana

Chandigarh, Sep 18, 2022- As the demand for better air pollution management is gaining ground, Punjab and Haryana, both prominent granaries, stare at crop residue burning with the onset of the winter season when air quality levels in Delhi and other northern areas in India touch hazardous limits.

Well ahead of the silent killer smog choking the region, the AAP governments in Punjab and Delhi are springing into action with measures for stubble management, including spraying Pusa bio-decomposer on 5,000 acres as a pilot project.

In the past, say experts, measures were often late, short-sighted and forgotten after the season passed.

The net cropped area in India is 140 million hectares. Harvesting of various crops generates large volumes of agricultural waste, both on and off the farms.

India’s crop residues are estimated to be around 600 million tonnes every year, with generation being the highest in Uttar Pradesh (responsible for 17.9 per cent of total biomass generated), followed by Maharashtra (10.52 per cent), Punjab (8.15 per cent) and Gujarat (6.4 per cent).

An estimated 140 million tonnes of crop residues are burnt in India every year. The burning of these residues creates an air pollution crisis in the Indo-Gangetic Plains during the harvest of the Kharif crop.

An estimated 39 million tonnes of paddy straw is being burnt every year in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Punjab Agriculture Minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal told IANS that the state would take all possible steps to stop stubble burning in the paddy harvesting season beginning October 1.

To manage the stubble, the government is distributing 56,000 machines under in-situ management, taking the total tally of machines to 146,422.

Dhaliwal said small farmers would also get machines like super seeder, happy seeder and zero drill as 500 such machines will be sent to 154 blocks across the state.

Lashing out at the Union government for turning down the state’s cash incentive proposal to farmers for not burning stubble, he said the state had proposed to give Rs 2,500 per acre to paddy growers.

For this, the state proposed to pay Rs 1,500 per acre by the Centre, while Rs 1,000 per acre will be borne by the Punjab and Delhi governments.

Earlier, the government had sought cost compensation of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy from the Centre to motivate farmers against burning of residue in the fields.

This time again the farmers will face the challenge of managing nearly 20 million tonnes of paddy straw.

Officials told IANS that since the window available to farmers for sowing the next rabi crop after harvesting of paddy is small, they end up resorting to stubble burning in order to quickly clear their fields to save the cost of managing paddy straw through machines supplied to them.

Burning of crop residue, a common practice by Punjab and Haryana growers, leads to an estimated economic loss of over $30 billion annually, besides being a leading risk factor for acute respiratory infection, especially among children, say researchers.

A study at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and its partner institutes say in five years the economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be $190 billion, or nearly 1.7 per cent of India’s gross domestic product.

To scientifically deal with crop residues, the Punjab government is creating a mechanism for off-take of fermented organic manure generated from compressed biogas projects.

Compressed biogas plants are the answer to thwart the stubble burning problem in a scientific way as the plants generate clean and green energy from paddy straw and other agro-residue, while creating an extra income source for farmers, said New and Renewable Energy Sources Minister Aman Arora.

As many as 20 million tonne paddy straw is being produced every year, he said.

Asia’s largest plant with a total capacity of 33.23 ton compressed biogas per day has been commissioned in Sangrur in Punjab and 42 additional plants with a total capacity of 492.58 tons per day have also been allocated by PEDA. On commissioning, these projects are expected to produce at least 10 lakh tonnes annually.

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, during his visit to Germany, invited agri trading company BayWa to provide sustainable agriculture business solutions that will help mechanization of agriculture.

Experts have stressed on the need to diversify the cropping pattern, moving away from water guzzling paddy to other crops, including maize. Punjab did try to push in sunflower and maize to replace paddy, but in a half-hearted manner, and the experiments failed.

A paper by The Energy Resource Institute (TERI) says crop rotation in the Indo-Gangetic Plains needs to be re-evaluated by encouraging farmers to move to other cropping cycles rather than the rice-wheat cropping system.

Another paper by TERI, “A Fiscally Responsible Green Stimulus”, suggests utilisation of crop residue in power plants.

Making the crop waste a commodity with a price that gives farmers a margin over the cost to pull out the crop residue would put an end to the burning of the crop residue in the fields.

The Supreme Court had suggested as much during hearings on the air pollution crisis last year. The crop waste can be used for value addition through densification of residues into briquettes. These pellets can be used in industrial boilers for process heat. They can also be used by thermal power plants for power generation by adding it to coal.

The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has shown that up to 10 per cent crop waste briquettes can be successfully blended with coal, allowing co-firing in power plants.

Having procured pellets through open tenders, NTPC also found that the cost of pellets was similar in terms of calorific value to that of the coal they were using. Hence, the cost of power generation did not go up when coal was replaced to the extent of 10 per cent by pellets made from crop waste; a renewable source.

Other options for the disposal of paddy straw include its use in paper or cardboard factories.

Raising an alarm, environmental sciences scientist Ravindra Khaiwal with the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh, said air pollution due to crop residue burning first affects the farmers, their families and livestock.

The Punjab government’s proposal to incentivise the farmers by offering Rs 2,500 per acre to stop burning stubble will lead to an estimated expenditure of Rs 1,875 crore. However, it will be unsustainable to pay yearly compensation to prevent crop residue burning.

He favours incentive should be given to crop diversification, which is more sustainable and would be a step ahead in moving from food security to nutrition security.

“This will also boost the production of environmentally sustainable crops having health benefits. Hence, the focus should be on educating farmers about economically viable alternatives and the cumulative effects of stubble burning,” Khaiwal opined.

In Haryana, the government under its crop diversification scheme “Mera Pani Meri Virasat” is offering Rs 7,000 per acre to the farmers for adopting alternative crops like fruits and vegetables in place of paddy. Also, insurance on crops is an added advantage.

Also the state has introduced “Kheti Khaali, Fir Bhi Khushali”. The scheme fetches Rs 7,000 per acre incentive to farmers, if they do not grow any crop in their field during the paddy season.

Both the schemes are aimed at saving water. Experts told that crop diversification from rice will largely help the stubble problem.  (Agency)

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