By Kurinji LS and Srish Prakash
The sharp decline in air quality in northern India over the past fortnight and the accompanying uptick in media coverage on the issue has once again triggered the debate around crop residue burning. Over the past few years, India has spent over Rs 1,388 crore to subsidise nearly 90,000 crop residue management (CRM) machines in Punjab. This was complemented by other state-run efforts including a ban on crop residue burning and financial incentives to promote the use of crop residue in industries. This year, the Punjab government has also placed a big bet on its all-out push to drive massive awareness against crop residue burning. This includes awareness campaigns involving students and experts from agricultural universities and progressive farmers, mobile vans carrying around informative banners, knowledge-sharing apps, and daily announcements in religious places. Given that the farm fire season is already upon us, here are three ways in which Punjab’s current awareness strategy should be re-directed to reduce farm fires.
First, disseminate information on widely-used platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Creating farmer groups on these platforms enables instant sharing of information about new technology, training programmes, field visits, etc in an accessible format. Two-way messaging on these platforms not just delivers information to the farmers, but also acts as a conduit between fellow farmers and brings farmers’ knowledge to experts. In addition, such initiatives can instil a sense of ‘esprit de corps’ by enabling farmers to identify with progressive peers who are pioneering environment-friendly crop residue management. Outreach efforts by individual actors like Mandi Gobindgarh’s progressive farmer Palwinder Singh who manages nearly 16 WhatsApp groups that connect over 1,000 farmers are a telling example of not only efficiency in communication but also effectiveness in action. He provides information on CRM machines and their ideal use practices with farmers and answers queries in real time. His mentoring has inspired his entire village to adopt no-burn practices and he aspires to set up similar information exchange centres across Punjab.
Second, information disseminated should go beyond just presenting the ill effects of crop residue burning. The current Information, Education & Communication (IEC) efforts focus on information vans, quick-to-read pamphlets and on-the-field demonstrations. While these efforts have been successful at creating awareness around the ill effects of stubble burning and the availability of crop residue management machines, they do not cover the impact of these machines across the crop cycle. Alternative technologies reduce the cost of sowing, water use, and fertiliser inputs. Such information is critical to maintaining stable yields and economic returns and should be clearly and unambiguously communicated to farmers. The buck doesn’t stop with just information against crop residue burning.
Our interactions with farmers in Punjab find that farmers’ concerns surrounding the decline in crop productivity as a result of using these alternative technologies are among the most significant barriers to the sustained adoption of in-situ farm implements. These concerns can be addressed by providing nuanced information about how the use of these alternatives should be accompanied by changes in the sowing practices, and the application of irrigation, pesticides, fertilisers, and rodent control measures.
For example, the final irrigation to the paddy crop should be well planned after taking the rain forecast into account to retain proper soil moisture at the time of wheat sowing using Happy or Super Seeder. And only four rounds of irrigation are required for wheat sown through a Happy Seeder compared to five rounds in the case of conventional tillage. Such instructions already find space in Punjab Agricultural University’s biennial ‘Packages of Practices’ reports. Enabling access to such ‘correct’ information and the resulting successes of farmers will reduce the likelihood of switching back to residue burning.
Finally, now is the time for extensive awareness campaigns by facilitating multi-agency extension services. These extension services are provided by the agriculture department, Krishi Vigyaan Kendras, State Agricultural Management, and Extension Training Institute, as well as non-government actors. However, there is little synchronisation between these actors. This leads to sporadic engagements ultimately leaving out certain geographies. Currently, the agriculture department, on average, conducts over 150 demonstrations in each district. However, despite the large scale of operations, it still falls short of covering the 10 lakh-plus farmers in Punjab. Integrated planning of such events and dissemination of CRM best practices by various governmental and non-governmental actors can improve the reach of these initiatives and bridge the existing knowledge gaps.
Timing is crucial too. Far too many training programmes are calendared on the tail-end of the season when the farmer is preoccupied with planning the harvest and marketing process. The crop residue burning conundrum is as much of a behavioural issue as it is a technical and economic one. This necessitates that training programmes and concerted awareness sessions on field practices with farmers are conducted throughout the agricultural year and not just when it hits the news.
While the above recommendations can strengthen the current awareness efforts, they must be used to prepare better for the next season. In the ongoing post-harvest and upcoming rabi season, the state must prioritise developing a compendium that documents the standard operating procedures of zero-burn methods and the changes required in the crop production process when adopting them. Such guidelines and institutional videos that capture the entire crop cycle will not only inform farmers about the operational practices but also capture their impact on the economics of the entire crop cycle. Reorienting the current approach to extension services to increase their reach, improving the quality of literature on CRM practices, the inclusion of behavioural change principles and dialogues by progressive farmers can surely help Punjab and neighbouring regions breathe cleaner air in the seasons to come.
Writers are respectively, programme associate, and consultant, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)