This photo taken on Oct 17, 2018 shows an Indian farmer burning straw stubble after harvesting the paddy crops in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar. Every November, air pollution in northern India reaches levels unimaginable in most parts of the world, forcing schools shut and filling hospital wards with wheezing patients. As winter descends, cooler air traps car fumes, factory emissions and construction dust close to the ground, fomenting a toxic brew of harmful pollutants. (NARINDER NANU / AFP)
Paramveer Singh, a wealthy farmer in Punjab state, says he has stopped stubble burning, which had long been a common practice among farmers in northern India and a major cause of air pollution.
Singh said he was able to break away from the tradition of burning left-over straw, or stubble, because he got a “Happy Seeder”, a tractor-mounted machine that removes the paddy straw while simultaneously sowing wheat for the next harvest.
The Happy Seeder, which Singh procured last year, has allowed him to adopt a new way of clearing the soil for the next crop, helping him end the controversial practice of stubble burning.
“Happy Seeder”, a tractor-mounted machine that removes the paddy straw while simultaneously sowing wheat for the next harvest, do not come cheap — the machine needs a tractor to work and the two, together, can cost up to US$15,000
The move came as experts from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Punjab Agricultural University, and the Borlaug Institute for South Asia — an international nonprofit that focuses on food, nutrition and livelihood security — urged farmers to utilize Happy Seeders, pointing out that the machines are eco-friendly, fast and effective.
But Singh is an exception rather than the rule, and stubble burning remains a serious problem in northern India.
Many farmers have said that they cannot afford the Happy Seeders, even with a government subsidy, and hence have no choice but to continue burning the stubble.
And for even those who can afford to buy, getting their hands on the machine has proved difficult as there is a long waiting time.
To promote the use of the machines, the Indian government has offered subsidies that cover 50 to 80 percent of the cost of the equipment.
Happy Seeders do not come cheap — the machine needs a tractor to work and the two, together, can cost up to US$15,000.
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Agricultural economist Ashok Gulatihas suggested tackling the problem at the root. The government should subsidize crops other than paddy, which is the source of most stubble burning, he feels.
"Policy and money should incentivize farmers in the region to plant more fruits and vegetables," he said.
"India needs more vitamins and protein rather than wheat and rice," Gulati said.
As vegetable and fruit crops do not leave stubble, it will bring down the number of open fires, he added.
A general view shows India's captial New Delhi on May 12, 2021 amid smoggy conditions. (ARUN SANKAR / AFP)
Given the upcoming elections, authorities are unlikely to come down hard on the farmers for stubble burning, with relations between the two sides already tense following controversial farm laws introduced by the Indian government last year
Practice of burning is rampant in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (UP) where farmers are crucial vote banks going to local legislative polls early next year.
Given the upcoming elections, authorities are unlikely to come down hard on the farmers for stubble burning, with relations between the two sides already tense following controversial farm laws introduced by the Indian government last year, which has led to months of protests – which are still ongoing.
To score political brownie points, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced last month that cases slapped against farmers for burning paddy stubble will be withdrawn and the fine imposed on them waived.
Punjab government, meanwhile, is working on awareness programs to stop farmers from burning stubble.
Every winter, stubble burning in the neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana and UP during October-November leaves the capital New Delhi gasping for breath.
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Northern India breathes “pollution levels that are ten times worse than those found anywhere else in the world,” according to a report published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago this month.
At least 480 million people in northern India — about 40 per cent of India’s population — suffer the “most extreme levels of air pollution in the world,” the report said.
Doctors fear the resultant emissions from stubble burning will aggravate the COVID-19 situation in the region, especially in Delhi.
A farmer harvests wheat in Meja Village, India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, April 18, 2020. (STR / XINHUA)
Farmers contend that they are being blamed in an unfair manner, pointing out that stubble burning is only one of many sources of Delhi's air pollution. Other sources such as industrial and vehicular emissions are far more serious, they say
Farmers contend that they are being blamed in an unfair manner, pointing out that stubble burning is only one of many sources of Delhi's air pollution. Other sources such as industrial and vehicular emissions are far more serious, they say.
Meanwhile, they argue that burning is the cheapest and easiest option available to farmers to clear their agricultural fields.
“We know it causes pollution. The first victim is the farmer, who also suffers respiratory diseases because he is the one who lights the fires. But what choice do we have?” said Ramvir Bidhuri, a farmer from western UP.
State governments have not given farmers the compensation as ordered by the Supreme Court in 2019, alleged Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of the Indian Farmers’ Union.
"We waited a whole year, but we got nothing. So, like many others, I decided to burn the stubble this year,” said Charandeep Singh, a farmer from Haryana who claimed that he did not do it last year.
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In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered some northern states to give US$32 per acre to every farmer who did not burn stubble. Various state governments adopted alternatives — some banned the practice outright, while some announced fines on farmers who continue to burn the crop stubble, and some even threw a few farmers into jail.
According to government estimates, farmers in northern India burn about 23 million tons of paddy stubble every year.
The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.