Photo Credit: The Indian Express.

Official apathy scalds crusaders against stubble burning

The government’s failure to provide a risk-free atmosphere to farmers who try to adopt new methods of crop residue management or sell stubble in the market instead of burning it has forced them to readopt the air pollution-causing practice, writes MOHIT SINGLA. 

—–

IN the absence of adequate safeguards for farmers who stopped burning stubble and preferred selling it in the market, the crusaders who once dissuaded them from the pollution-causing practice have themselves readopted it.

After strong protests against the heavy penalties (five-year imprisonment and fine up to Rs 1 crore) prescribed against violation of clause 14, including stubble burning, of The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020, the Centre added the following line to the clause: “Provided that the provisions of this section shall not apply to any farmer for causing air pollution by stubble burning or mismanagement of agricultural residue.”

However, clause 15 of the ordinance, which became an Act in August, maintains that “the Commission may impose and collect environmental compensation from farmers causing air pollution by stubble burning, at such rate and in such manner, as may be prescribed”.

Also read: President signs Ordinance to constitute a Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR and adjoining areas

 Chamkaur Singh is the prime example of a farmer who once motivated others to stop burning stubble but grew increasingly frustrated while selling it. “Tired of running from pillar to post to get a payment of Rs 9 lakh against the paddy straw bales he sold to Punjab Biomass Power Limited (PBPL) in Rajpura, Punjab”, an anguished Singh, a native of Ghanudki village, Patiala, is back to burning stubble.

Chamkaur Singh (centre) with other local farmers at Ghanudki village.

A pile of burnt promises

Singh claims that PBPL promised to pay him Rs 1,300 per MT paddy straw after he had dropped bales worth Rs 11.5 lakh at PBPL’s unit at Ghanour, Rajpura. As per their agreement, PBPL had agreed to pay him 50%-60% of the amount by December 2017 and the remaining sum by March 2018. However, he claims to have received only Rs 2.5 lakh during the season.

Subsequently, Singh wrote to the additional deputy commissioner, who marked it to the chief agricultural officer (CAO). The Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA) also wrote to PBPL, copying it to the deputy commissioner and the CAO, to make the pending payment—but Singh never received his dues.

“I am reeling under heavy debt after paying Rs 3.5 lakh to the labourers and several lakhs for the thread and incurring expenses on fuel and the wear-and-tear of machinery. I am still paying the interest on the loan,” says Singh, who stands firmly with fellow farmers and against the administration.

Also read: Stubble burning: NGT directs Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to keep daily tab on air pollution

 Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Rajewal claims that PBPL has defaulted on payment of Rs 4 crore to around 70 farmers.

“When we protested the nonpayment of our dues, the officials said that they were powerless and advised us to file a civil suit against the breach of the agreement,” says Onkar Singh Agaul, general secretary, BKU Rajewal. “The government must safeguard the payment of such farmers who play a pivotal role in preventing stubble burning,” he adds.

“If the government was serious about safeguarding our interests, how could the company liquidate its shares, take away all the machinery, every brick of the plant and even sell the land without paying our dues?” ask Gurkuber Singh, Sukhchain Singh and other farmers who dropped bales at the plant.

PEDA officials said that PBPL was brought in by the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL). When this journalist tried to reach Viren Ahuja, the company’s authority, he hung up and did not respond to further calls and messages. PSPCL director (power generation) Paramjit Singh said that the power purchase contract with PBPL was suspended after it stopped supplying power to PSPCL in 2017.

This single instance had a rippling effect on the efforts to stop stubble burning. At least, one village in Patiala which was adopted by Birlasoft under corporate social responsibility to attain zero stubble burning in 2017 lost its track. The software company, part of the CK Birla Group, paid cash incentives to farmers of Ageti village and arranged balers to motivate them towards residue management. The village achieved zero stubble burning by the end of the harvest season and the company returned with a sense of achievement.

However, the balers did not return to collect the straw bales as the major buyer of the bales in the region had stopped making payments against straw bales. Many farmers had to burn or hire labourers to remove the bales lying in their fields.

Since there is no support to farmers who enthusiastically tried to switch to residue management, they are returning to the old practice of setting straw on fire. “Next year, our farmers did not entertain the balers due to their experience. But we tried in situ management of the residue as our cooperative society had bought tools for the same,” say Joginder Singh, Dalvir Singh, Major Singh and other farmers from Ageti.

Joginder Singh with other farmers at Ageti village.

More than 70% of farmers who sowed wheat using Happy Seeders later complained that the crop did not germinate well and suffered a heavy loss. “Agriculture experts did nothing beyond commenting on the technical aspects, including unusual wind blow, dry soil, etc.,” says Dalvir Singh. “But who paid the cost? The government did not even measure their losses let alone compensate them or appreciate their efforts,” the farmers said.
Dalvir Singh, with other farmers, at Ageti village.

Most of the disappointed villagers who burnt the straw last year said that they don’t have a choice this year as well due to the skyrocketing diesel prices.

A ‘blurred vision’ in policy-making

Santokh Singh, a farmer of Thuhi village, had bought crop residue management equipment on a 50% subsidy last year. A straw managing system installed on a combine harvester is sold at Rs 1.1 lakh-Rs 1.2 lakh by empanelled vendors while it is available for Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000 in the open market. Similarly, the Rs 2.5 lakh Super Seeder is available between Rs 1.6 lakh and Rs 1.8 lakh. “While it generally takes months to receive the subsidy in the bank account, a farmer keeps on paying the interest during that period,” says a disappointed Singh.

Santokh Singh

“After incurring the expenditure on fuel and labour for residue management, I had to spend thrice on fertilisers during the cultivation of maize. I got no return on the extra amount spent on fertilisers and labour,” Singh added. “The farmer training camps are limited to welcoming chief guests and photo ops with no experts accessible on the fields. The farmer is left to pay the cost for experimenting and finally return to straw burning if the initial experience is bitter.”

“On one hand, the government insists on crop diversification and reducing the area under non-Basmati crops. On the other hand, they are asking us to use paddy-based machinery, which reflects a blurred vision in policy-making,” says Onkar Singh Agaul, state general secretary, BKU Rajewal. “On top of this, it’s the manufacturer, not the farmer, who benefits from the subsidy.”

Harvest of the most widely sown paddy variety PUSA 44—which produces maximum residue against yield—has not begun yet due to the untimely rains. Still, more than 6,700 cases of stubble burning were registered by the Punjab Pollution Control Board till October 27.

“The cooperative societies, mostly running at a loss, can’t get the tools repaired, which costs around Rs 25,000 per equipment every season,” says an assistant registrar at the Punjab Cooperatives Societies. The machines remain defunct due to the lack of repair or absence of high-power tractors, he added.

Tools lying unused at Ageti village cooperative society.

The cooperative societies have been asked to provide machinery to small and marginal farmers free of cost, but they still have to bear the fuel and labour costs, which amount to Rs 1,500 per acre if sown directly and up to Rs 3,500 per acre if MB plough is also deployed.

Besides, ex-situ management of straw is too slow. Punjab has taken a decade to set up 11 plants that use 8.8 lakh MT straw annually to produce 97.5 MW of electricity. Though more plants are in the pipeline, the consumption has to be increased considerably since the state has to tackle around 2 crore MT of straw produced during harvest.

Finding it most economical, farmers do show a keen interest in baling. However, the small window between harvest and sowing poses a challenge as the farmer wants his field clear immediately after harvest and the limited availability of balers during the peak of the season makes him panic.

“As long as governments don’t pay the cost to indebted farmers, they will be reluctant to manage the residue of paddy crop,” says Harmel Singh of BKU Ugrahan.

(Mohit Singla is an independent journalist based in Nabha, Patiala.) 

The Leaflet