The "challenge fund", a first-of-its-kind in India, was announced in September last year.
None but one company has come forward to accept the Punjab government’s “challenge” of finding the most viable eco-friendly technological solution to stubble burning, for which a Rs 7-crore award has been announced. The “challenge fund”, a first-of-its-kind in India, was announced in September last year. It is open to individuals, organisations, research institutions and companies across the world.
With 29.20 lakh hectares of its area under paddy cultivation, Punjab produces around 20 million tonnes of paddy straw every year. Almost the whole of paddy straw, except that of Basmati rice, is burnt to make the field ready for sowing of wheat or potato.
Experts say farmers resort to burning the crop residue because other solutions are not economically viable. Stubble burning is considered a major reason behind the annual smog episodes in Delhi-NCR. This year, the contribution of farm fires to pollution in the region peaked to 44 per cent on November 1, triggering a public health emergency.
The Punjab State Farmers and Farm Workers Commission last year announced the Rs 7-crore award for anyone who could come up with an economically viable and environment-friendly solution to the problem, its chairman Ajay Vir Jakhar said.
The entry fee for the “challenge” had been set at Rs 1.4 lakh so that only genuine applicants come forward, and Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) was roped in to evaluate the technology. The commission is looking for a technology that can help decompose paddy straw in less than 20 days, Jakhar said.
Jaskaran Mahal, Dean, College of Agricultural Engineering and Technology, PAU, said, “There is only one applicant at this moment.” However, he declined from sharing more information “until and unless we get some clear information about the product”.
“We don’t know the outcome (efficiency of the product) yet. We will evaluate the product and accordingly, inform the farmer commission,” he said. Jakhar, however, said a number of companies have started working on it. “The technology could also be a spray which could help decompose paddy straw in the field itself, without contaminating the soil or water,” he said.
Asked if stubble could be used to make biochar, bio-gas, or ethanol, he said, “We are looking for an environment-friendly and economically viable technology. The existing technologies are not cheap. Had these options been inexpensive, we would have had a solution to stubble burning by now.”
The Punjab government has introduced single-window clearance system to encourage companies to set up plants to convert crop stubble into CNG, coal or gas. “No plant has started yet,” he claimed. However, Punjab Agriculture Secretary Kahan Singh Pannu said, “Stubble is being used to make gas and coal, but that’s happening on a very small scale. We have got 20 million tonnes of paddy straw to deal with. Nothing has happened on the ‘challenge fund’ front, too.”
The government is providing farm equipment at a subsidized rate to farmers and cooperative societies for in-situ management of paddy straw. But, the cost of fuel to operate the machinery is hefty, keeping farmers from availing the option.
Recently, the Supreme Court had ordered that all farmers be given an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal to prevent them from setting their fields on fire. But experts feel that it has came too late.