“When the time was right, they didn’t come,” said Om Pal Singh about the Aam Aadmi Party government’s ‘free bio-decomposer’ drive in Delhi. “Now, after the Supreme Court or Centre or whoever has rapped them, I am getting continuous calls from government officials to convince farmers in my village to get the solution sprayed.”
Singh, 53, who has been growing paddy for over three decades in North Delhi’s Tigipur village, was referring to a microbial solution which the AAP government has called a “highly-effective” and “cost-effective” answer to stubble burning﹘at the centre of a debate on air pollution in Delhi which has witnessed “severe” and “very poor” air quality since Diwali this year.
Singh is just one among 292 applicants who opted for the drive across 24 villages in North Delhi.
Newslaundry spoke to farmers in five villages﹘Tigipur, Ramzanpur, Mohdpur, Baktarpur and Palla﹘who suggested that the AAP government’s initiative either made “no difference” or came “too late”.
On October 11, Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai had launched the drive from a farm in Fatehpur Jat village. The target was to spray it on over 4,000 acres of farmland across 59 villages in Delhi. Rai had also said the drive would save farmers money.
“The farmers don’t even need to buy a matchbox to get rid of the stubble standing on their fields. They just need to give us a call on the helpline number, and we will bear the entire cost of the spraying of the bio-decomposer,” he had .
Last year, the Delhi government, in its pilot project, had claimed to have sprayed the bio-decomposer, developed by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, on nearly 1,900 acres of farmland across 39 villages in Delhi. The joint director, agriculture, for the Delhi government, A P Saini, told Newslaundry, that 844 farmers had filled the application forms and a target of 4,140 acres was set this year.
However, the initiative has come under criticism from the opposition BJP, which alleged that the Arvind Kejriwal government had spent Rs 15.8 crore on advertising while paying only Rs 40,000 to purchase it from IARI. The BJP cited two RTI replies by the joint director of agriculture, Delhi government, and a written response in the Delhi Assembly.
Newslaundry asked the AAP government about the RTI replies.
“Yes we did advertise, but the BJP does not have a problem with advertisements. Whenever something good happens, the BJP gets troubled because they don’t want solutions to things ,” Gopal Rai said.
“Besides,the reason we did the advertisement and publicity of the initiative was that farmers in neighbouring Punjab, Haryana and UP should know that a solution is now out there,” he said.
Were the advertisements circulated in the neighbouring states?
“They were run in Delhi only, but when something is being advertised in Delhi, it travels distances,” Rai said.
‘No real difference’
In paddy fields, there are two ways of harvesting when the crop is ready: harvesting through a combine machine, which leaves behind taller hay or stubble, and hand-cutting of the crop to chop stubble off the ground.
The bio-decomposer, however, can only be sprayed on fields which use the combine machine.
Om Pal Singh explained that under normal circumstances, when the decomposer is not sprayed on such fields, farmers have to plough the field with a tractor nearly five-six times to merge the stubble into the soil and then water it so that the residue decomposes or melts. But he said the bio-decomposer had “no benefit” on his six acres.
Singh said the solution was sprinkled in two bouts- on two acres in October on the day minister Rai came to Fatehpur Jat, and after nearly two weeks on the remaining land.
“There was no real difference,” he said. “We had to plough the entire field the usual number of times, spending money on fuel for the tractor.”
Both times, he said, “They sprayed the chemical, ploughed the field with a tractor and told us to sprinkle water on the field to make it moist.”
According to Dr K Annapura of the IARI (Pusa), there is a standard operating procedure for the bio-decomposer to work.
“Once it is sprayed, they should use a rotavator or any other machine which incorporates or mixes the straw well into the soil,” she said. “It then has to be seen that the field is moist because moisture is needed for any enzyme to work….so a light irrigation of the field is recommended.”
Dr Annapura said that these two things have to be done immediately after or at least by the next day of spraying for the solution to show results. The solution decomposes the residue in 20-25 days on an average and this is a scientific process that takes its time, she said, adding that the farmer needs to be committed to the procedure.
However, farm workers at the patch of land, where the drive was launched in October, also raised questions about the efficacy of the solution during a visit by Newslaundry.
Farm labourers separate paddy from stubble near Tigipur.
Deepan, a farm labourer working for the last five years on the now privately owned farmland, said that eight acres of the total 300 was sprayed and ploughed during Rai’s visit.
Standing in a narrow clearing between the part of the farm that was sprayed and the one that wasn’t, Deepan said, “There is no difference...The stubble did not decompose.”
Deepan informed that he and his fellow labourers did water the field and leave it for about 15-20 days, but then had to plough it six times to get rid of the stubble.
After speaking with the expert from IARI, Newslaundry spoke to Om Pal Singh again to know if he had followed the procedure.
The first time, Om Pal followed the instructions and watered his field. “There was some 19-20 percent decomposition of the stubble but that is just the same as when we don’t spray the chemical but just put water. I still had to plough the field multiple times.”
For even the remaining piece of land, he said, it was “too late” by the time they came, adding that he could not leave the field wet as he wanted to sow the new crop. He claimed he had called up local officials for an early round of spraying but was told that it could only happen once the chemical was available.
AAP’s Rai, when asked about the farmers who didn’t see the benefit of this solution, said, “All those who follow the proper procedure saw results last year as well and will see this time also. Some farmers want to experiment and do it their way.”
‘They don’t come on time’
On Tuesday, A P Saini, Delhi government’s joint director of agriculture, told Newslaundry that nearly 3,800-3,900 acres of the 4,140 target had been met by Monday. “I believe 4,000 acres will most probably be completed by Wednesday.”
But for farmers like Om Pal Singh, the timing is odd as they have already sown the seeds for the new season.
Jagat Singh Rajput, a farmer in Tigipur, said, “By the time they called me, I had already done ploughing, irrigation and sown new seeds in my field, and today my new crop is 19 days old already...I had filled a form for free spraying last year...I did not get a single call and no one approached me then.”
After hand harvesting, near Ramzanpur.
How did the government spread awareness about the drive among farmers?
The joint director said that block development officials had gone “from village to village” and “were getting forms filled in September”.
According to an official at the block development office in Alipur, under which the villages of North Delhi fall, village officials had visited the houses of farmers to inform them about the solution and surveys were conducted.
Farmer Ram Kishan Sehravat of Ramzanpur village, however, said “no government worker” came to him or “anyone else in his village”.
Sehravat, who cultivates paddy on 10 acres, said he was not even made aware of any helpline number either. “A few farmers in another village had filled forms but their fields were not sprayed with the chemical,” he claimed.
Farmers can’t wait too long for this process, he said. “This is all Kejriwal’s sham, things are just advertised and nothing happens.”
Another farmer from Ramzanpur, Jagdish, 56, who has been cultivating paddy for 35 years, agreed. “Gopal Rai-ji had come last month with his party members and the media...He had told those present that the government will distribute a chemical for free and it will melt the stubble and make manure from it.”
“But I don’t know anyone in my village or the neighbouring villages of Kushak, Baktarpur and Hiranki, whose field the solution was sprayed on. All this talk about how much solution they sprayed on fields is all fluff,” he alleged.
Rajeshwari, a farmer from Baktarpur village, who has been cultivating paddy on 22 acres for the last 15 years, also said that no one approached her. “We would have at least tried it once, if they had approached us,” she said, “If they’re saying that farmers are benefitting from this, why would we say no?”
Saini, of the Delhi government, said that 292 farmers had filled the application in North Delhi. When asked if the bio-decomposer was sprayed on the fields of all of them, he said “no”.
“We had asked for a tentative date from them for spraying, some of them had already sown new crops before those dates,” he said, adding that “a large chunk of applications” were filled by farmers who had hand-cut their harvest, which means the chemical can’t be sprinkled on those fields.
Why were their applications accepted in the first place? Was there awareness created about the kind of farmland the solution can be sprayed on?
“Farmers must have done it based on hearsay, looking at other farmers doing it,” he said.
IARI nodal officer I M Mishra said, “We got feedback from Delhi farmers about last year’s drive and they were very happy, they saw that the solution decomposed the stubble and also improved the soil health.”
On whether government officials had received any training to help disseminate the right procedure to farmers, Mishra said that experts from the institute accompanied officials last year to demonstrate the right procedure. “And this year as well, they are available to help and guide them.”
Stubble as a ‘resource’
In the villages Newslaundry visited in North Delhi, several farmers have made residue a method to earn more from their produce.
In the five villages, farmers who use farm labour to hand-cut their harvest, sell the stubble anywhere between Rs 2,000-8,000 per acre﹘to crockery dealers for packaging, to fruit dealers in the nearby Azadpur mandi and to progressive mushroom farmers to help them grow their crop.
Farmer Surinder Singh, 65, having 30 acres of land, said he has never had to burn stubble. “Until 10 years ago, there was so much cattle that all of the farm residue would get used as fodder,” he said. “But even now, 30 percent of the stubble is used for our cattle and 70 percent gets sold in the Azadpur mandi or to mushroom growers and poultry farmers.”
Jagat Singh Rajput from Tigipur and Ram Kishan and Jagdish from Tigipur agreed.
Pappan Singh, a mushroom grower in North Delhi who buys farm residue in large quantities, said stubble is important to make sheds or houses where mushrooms are grown.
“Why would a farmer burn the stubble and their field if they can make a few thousand bucks for every acre,” said Jagat Singh.
All pictures by Diksha Munjal.
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