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Last straw to stubble burning

Straw can be converted into fuel for use in vehicles — it can also replace coal in old power plants, reducing the environmental cost

Last straw to stubble burning
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Should farmers get paid for not burning their fields? This is an extremely contentious issue today as the northern Indian region stares at another winter when stubble is burnt in fields and winds bring the pollution to cities like Delhi — already choking from the spit of vehicles and local sources of pollution. The logic behind this is that rewarding farmers with cash would dissuade them from burning their fields.

My logic, as an environmentalist and campaigner for clean air, is that this will be a perverse incentive. In other words, it will get easily abused so that there is more stubble burning as there will be the promise of the reward; and each year the amount of the reward will have to be raised. The incentive will become the perverse reason for doing what is wrong. But, I am being screamed at in social media platforms; the taglines being that "I am elitist, ignorant, out of touch with reality" and, of course, "anti-farmer".

That said, it is a fact when the reward was given last year — the Punjab government disbursed some Rs 29 crore to 31,231 farmers — the number of stubble fires went up from the previous year. But that is not even the point.

Farmers need assistance — there is no question about that. I am not even talking about the larger problem of agrarian distress, where farmers are caught in the pincer between high prices of inputs as against the need to depress food prices for consumers. This system that discounts the labour of farmers ends up discounting their soil and water systems as well. It needs to be fixed.

We need to recognise the problem and find the way ahead — one that provides income to farmers and improves environmental sustainability.

We know farmers burn stubble because they have a short period between when they harvest paddy and when they have to sow the next wheat crop. We also know that this period has been shortened because the government has notified a delay in planting paddy — postponed by roughly a month so that it is planted closer to when the monsoon arrives in the region; all this has been done so that farmers do not overexploit groundwater.

You can argue that farmers should not plant paddy in these water-scarce regions. You would be correct. But the answer is complicated as governments procure paddy with an assured minimum support price (MSP).

Farmers then are caught in the pernicious pecuniary trap — the stubble of basmati paddy is not burnt as it can be used for fodder. But basmati paddy is not under MSP because it can be traded internationally. So, farmers still grow non-basmati paddy for MSP and then have no alternative but to burn the stubble. They choke, we choke.

The answer then is three-fold: One, use machines to plough back the straw into the ground and do so without impinging on the time that is needed for sowing the wheat crop. But these agricultural equipment are expensive (they were not available also till a few years back). So, in the past two years, the Union government has provided funds so that state governments can procure these machines and make them available to farmers at no cost or a minimal cost of operation.

By the beginning of stubble-burning season 2020, in Punjab alone, some 50,000 machines had been given at 80 per cent subsidy to custom hiring centres and individual farmers. Tilling biomass back into the ground would also improve soil fertility.

The second part of the solution is to provide value to the biomass — farmers will not burn if they can be paid for the straw. There is huge potential here — from generating power to using straws to make compressed biogas (CBG). Much is happening here as well. The first CBG project should go online by early 2021; many more are in the pipeline.

Last month, the Reserve Bank of India included CBG in its list of priority sector lending; the State Bank of India has circulated a loan scheme; and, oil companies have agreed on a buy-back rate of Rs 46 per kilogramme for five years. So, straw burnt today will be converted into fuel for use in vehicles.

Then there is also the option of using straws to replace coal in old power plants — this would not only help to extend the life of the built infrastructure but will also reduce environmental costs.

The third option is to wean farmers away from growing paddy and to diversify their cropping options. This, obviously, is more challenging but needs to be done.

The fact is that we need to do much more to provide real options to farmers. For instance, they could be paid for their ecosystem service of soil organic carbon sequestration. But all this needs to be done in ways that it builds the foundation for doing what is right.

The writer is the Director-General of CSE and editor of Down To Earth. Views expressed are personal

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