It’s harvest season in Shamli district, in western Uttar Pradesh’s sugarcane belt. The roads are lined with trucks, carts, and tractors loaded with stalks of freshly cut cane, heading towards the nearest sugar mills.
This is also the season for burning stubble, the crop residue left in fields after the harvest. Stubble burning is at the heart of conversations around air pollution, and governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh have banned the practice. In Uttar Pradesh, farmers are fined if they burn stubble.
In two days earlier this month, at least were booked for reportedly burning stubble in Fatehpur district alone. Eight of them were jailed, the police said, after they were unable to pay the fines.
But the alternative — using machines to remove the stubble, hiring labour to clear it, repurposing it as animal fodder or fuel — doesn’t hold much value for many farmers.
Hiring a machine to destroy the stubble adds to costs, farmers in Shamli said. Three kilograms of stubble is produced for every quintal of rice, for example. And renting a mulcher to destroy it costs about Rs 300 per bigha of land. Hiring labourers to clear it costs around Rs 700-800 per bigha.
In Bucha Khedi village in Shamli, Padam Singh, 48, received a notice in connection with a farm fire on November 17. He’s the only farmer in the village to have received such a notice, he said.
The notice, issued by the sub divisional magistrate of Shamli’s Kairana tehsil, claimed that Singh had “been found guilty of burning agricultural waste in 0.2 hectares of his land, and will therefore have to pay a fine of Rs 2,500”.
Padam Singh uses much of the stubble from his field for fodder.
Singh owns four bighas of land and earns around Rs 1 lakh a year from farming it, his relative Vinod Kumar said.
This year, Singh burned 10-20 kg of agricultural waste, Kumar added. He cleared the bulk of the stubble to use as animal fodder, but some of the stalk below the ground contains traces of toxins from fertilisers and, so, can’t be given to animals.
Now, black soot marks the spot on his field where the stubble was burned. Singh’s nephew, Gaurav Chauhan, pointed to the coarse mixture of grain and stubble that constitutes agricultural waste. “This does not perish easily,” he said. “That’s why it has to be burned.”
In a field nearby, a couple of women labourers were busy removing leaves from cane stalks with sickles and bundling them up. Tarawati, one of the labourers, said she earns Rs 400 a day for eight hours of work. The green leaves are used as fodder while the dry leaves are used as fuel by local factories that produce jaggery from sugarcane juice.
Tarawati earns Rs 400 a day cleaning and collecting sugarcane stalks.
Yet, despite much of the stubble being repurposed, farm fires are a common sight in the region. Probably fearful of police action, at least two farmers said the fires were “just bonfires to keep them warm” when asked why they were burning stubble.
In Nanu Pura village, Murari Lal received a notice for burning stubble on November 3. He was fined Rs 2,500. Lal has 18 bighas of land, his son Vikram Singh said, and grows mostly sugarcane and wheat.
Sugar mills in Shamli often delay payments for sugarcane, he added, so farmers sometimes have to sell their produce elsewhere at a nominal rate of Rs 200 per quintal as opposed to Rs 300 per quintal at the mills. Fines, thus, are an additional burden.
Vikram Singh shows the notice his family received.
‘Trying to spread awareness’
Jasjit Kaur, the district magistrate of Shamli, said the administration had sent notices to 26 farmers for burning stubble between October 5 and November 21. They were fined a total of Rs 52,000, of which Rs 5,000 had been collected. No FIRs were filed, however.
Fines are imposed according to a graded system – Rs 2,500 for farmers owning two acres of land, Rs 5,000 for those owning two to five acres of land; and Rs 15,000 for those owning over five acres of land.
The district administration tracks farm fires using satellite imagery. Once an incident is flagged, the district magistrate’s office coordinates with the tehsil and block-level officials, who then issue notices to the farmers in question.
The administration has also tried to spread the warning about the penalties.
“Wall paintings have been done in villages to spread awareness,” said Shiv Kumar Kesari, the deputy director for agriculture in Shamli. “We made arrangements for speakers too to spread the word.”
The Uttar Pradesh government is also advertising on TV a scheme for farmers to exchange stubble for manure and fertiliser. “We are also trying to link farmers to gaushalas in case there is stubble left in their fields,” Kesari said, referring to cow shelters. “If the number of stubble-burning incidents rises, we can try the fertiliser scheme also.”
Additionally, Kesari said, since last year, farmers have been offered stubble-clearing machines at subsidised rates. The machines costing Rs 15 lakh are sold at 80 percent discount to farmers who can afford them; they pay Rs 2-3 lakh and the government pays the rest. Sixty nine farmers have used them since 2019. Also, since September this year, 10,000 farmers have been given a “decomposer solution” to get rid of the stubble, priced at Rs 20 per bottle. The bottles were distributed to farmers free of cost, Kesari said.
The solution is “filtered from cow dung, which contains microorganisms that help decay stubble in 10-12 days”, explained Kesari. It is mixed with water, jaggery and chickpea flour and sprayed on stubble. The Uttar Pradesh government has bought 1,60,000 bottles of the solution from a company in Odisha, Kesari added.
Newslaundry, though, found no wall paintings in three villages we visited in Shamli. And the farmers said they had not heard of any “decomposer solution”.
The decomposer solution sold to farmers by the Uttar Pradesh government.
“The government in Delhi notices the pollution caused by farmers. But when his crops are destroyed, the government doesn’t seem to witness that,” complained Afsaruddin Mukhia, 30, a farmer in Rotan village in Shamli.
On October 10, his cousin Aalim, 55, received a call from the revenue department. The caller identified himself as Ajay, personal assistant to the patwari, a local revenue official, and told Aalim that “someone” had set fire to his field. For this, Aalim had been fined Rs 2,500, the caller said.
At the time, Aalim was away in Karnal, Haryana, to sell his produce. Regardless, he received a reminder to pay in November, and finally paid Rs 2,000, saying Rs 500 would be paid later. Aalim grows rice on five bighas of land and earns around Rs 60,000-70,000 per year.
Mukhia protested that they hadn’t burned stubble. He suspected that someone had thrown a lit beedi into the field setting it afire.
Afsaruddin Mukhia, left, with Aalim in Rotan.
Mukhia, who too farms five bighas of land, pointed out that it cost Rs 3,500-4,000 to hire labourers to remove stubble from a field of his size. And most farmers in Shamli can’t afford the cost.
He was “disillusioned” with schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the central government’s crop insurance scheme, Mukhia said. “There’s no plan for compensation or for crop insurance,” he explained, “but Uttar Pradesh and central governments are quite vigilant when it comes to tracking pollution.”
Update: This piece has been updated to add that the "decomposer solutions" were distributed to farmers free of cost.
Sharwan Sharma and Kurban Ali contributed reporting.
All pictures by Akanksha Kumar.