Straw-man stands threaten crop stubble management

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) estimates that Punjab and Haryana produced 28 million tonnes of rice straw in 2018. 36% of it was left in the fields. A fifth was removed. The rest was burnt.

Stubble burning, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, SAFAR, air quality, Delhi, NCR, delhi air pollution 
In 2018, the Centre provided Rs 1,150 crore to subsidise the machines needed for no-till and straw-in-soil farming practices.

The slow and steady progress made by no-burn technologies for in-field management of paddy straw and stubble in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, can get impeded if influential voices proposing unviable alternatives, or blaming field fires on legislation against early transplanting of rice gain traction among farmers and government leaders.

The venerable agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan, who is credited with India’s Green Revolution, has proposed “rice bio-parks,” which are prettily-named industrial estates to produce paper, board and animal feed from paddy straw. Agricultural economist and NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand says it is best used for compressed bio-gas. Public sector oil marketing companies are installing plants to produce gas and ethanol from straw.

All these alternatives require the straw to be moved out of fields. Multiple machines will be needed to compress the straw into bales after chopping and raking it. Since rice plants produce equal quantities of grain and straw, Punjab’s average straw yield per acre will be 2.6 tonnes. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) estimates that Punjab and Haryana produced 28 million tonnes of rice straw in 2018. 36% of it was left in the fields. A fifth was removed. The rest was burnt.

Pramod Chaudhari, executive chairman of Pune-based Praj Industries, which is providing technology to oil companies for ethanol production from cellulose, says the plant-gate cost of straw, including a payment of Rs 500 to farmers, will be Rs 1,300 a tonne. That is Rs 3,400 an acre. Will the ethanol be competitive? Environmental benefits should not be seen through the lens of profitability, the company says.

Sanjeev Nagpal of Sampurn Agriventures buys straw for Rs 2 per kg, or Rs 5,200 an acre. Of this, the farmer retains Rs 1 per kg and pays the rest as collection expenses. His plant in Fazilka produces bio-gas from fermented straw, which in turn is used to generate electricity. The state utility buys it at an assured price of Rs 8.50 a unit, he says, which is more than Punjab’s average electricity tariff, excluding taxes. The utility buys solar power for Rs 2.50 a unit. Nagpal’s plant can use 40 tonnes of straw a day, but was operating at half the capacity last year.

Punjab and Haryana grow rice on 4.5 million hectares. Moving even a part of the straw within a period of one month to make way for wheat planting will be a logistical challenge. Trucks, and tractors powering the mulchers, rakers and balers, will add to the pollution load with their exhaust emissions.

Retaining the straw in fields to degrade over time improves soil texture, enhances nutrient content, suppresses weeds, conserves moisture and allows beneficial microbes to thrive. A contraption attached to combine harvesters chops the straw and spreads it evenly. It has been made mandatory for harvesters to be eligible for purchasing subsidy. A seed drill, called the Happy Seeder, parts the straw mat and sows wheat in row-wise slits.

This saves farmers about Rs 2,000 an acre in averted ploughing. The saving is twice as much when compared to burning the straw, and preparing the fields by ploughing and planking them multiple times. No-burn, no-till farming is the preferred practice recommended by ICAR, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA). It improves wheat productivity and enables the crop to withstand terminal heat by retaining soil moisture.

In fields where potato and peas are grown after the rice harvest, the straw can be chopped, and incorporated in the soil using a harrow and a reversible mould plough. According to PAU, these two methods have caught on. 36% of straw was managed in these two ways in 2018, up from less than 2% in 2017.

In 2018, the Centre provided Rs 1,150 crore to subsidise the machines needed for no-till and straw-in-soil farming practices. This correspondent met six farmers in Karnal and Ludhiana districts of Haryana and Punjab respectively, who have been practising zero-till, no-burn agriculture. Some of them were recent converts. Two of them were cultivating large tracts and had bought Happy Seeders.

(Contrary to reports, they are not expensive. They cost about Rs 1.5 lakh each, and can pay for themselves in two seasons if used for six-to-eight hours a day). Others were hiring them from centres which were supplied the machines by company trusts as part of their social responsibility.

PAU VC Baldev Singh Dhillon says evacuation of straw from fields is fine for the time being to avert smoke from burning, but over time, the paddy straw must be managed in-field. The university’s director of research, Navtej Singh Bains admits to teething troubles in no-till agriculture which, he says, would be encountered in any transition of technology. ML Jat, who oversees CIMMYT’s ‘sustainable intensification’ programme in India, says apart from timely availability of machine, farmers need to be hand-held into adopting practices that go no-till, no-burn agriculture.

They were dismayed over news reports and commentary that attributes the slight increase in stubble burning events this year to a 2009 Punjab legislation that prohibits the raising of rice nurseries before 10 May, and transplanting before a notified day in June. The law was enacted to conserve groundwater by stopping farmers from taking a summer crop of ‘satt-hi’ (meaning 60-day) rice after wheat harvesting and before the kharif rice crop. The law forbade transplanting before 15 June from 2014 to 2017. Last year it was 20 June. This year, following protests, including by the Akali Dal which had piloted the legislation when in government, it was pushed back by a week to 13 June.

The prohibition on early transplantation is meant to save groundwater which is depleting in Punjab, in some blocks at faster than the aquifer recharge rate. Farmers have adopted shorter duration rice varieties that need fewer number of irrigations and can be harvested earlier, leaving a longer period for wheat planting. The coverage of these varieties rose from 32.6% in 2012 to 81.9% in 2018, according to PAU surveys.

PAU says it is necessary to stick to the transplanting date of 20 June so that farmers do not revert to long-duration varieties that require more irrigation. The reprieve of one-week this year has resulted in just this: area under short-duration varieties fell by nearly 14 percentage points to 68%.

Persuading farmers to give up ingrained practices like ploughing, and practising straw-in-field planting takes time. The focus should be on expanding the adoption of no-burn paddy straw management technologies. Influential distractions can set back efforts in place for ground water conservation and sustainably managing air pollution from paddy cultivation.

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First published on: 14-12-2019 at 04:13 IST