The sky and landscape provide clues on how the governments of Punjab and Haryana are handling the menace of stubble burning this year.
In Punjab’s Sangrur and Patiala districts, the air is thick with smoke, the landscape pockmarked with half or fully burned fields. Eighty km to the southeast, towards Kaithal district in Haryana, the visibility improves. Golden hay and green fields emerge on the horizon.
This, in a nutshell, summarises the progress of the two states in containing farm residue fires that exacerbate the air pollution in Delhi during the kharif harvesting season, spanning October and November. The contribution of farm fires to Delhi’s PM 2.5 peaked this year on November 3 at 34 percent. This means that pollution caused by farm fires, with Punjab recording the highest, was the chief source of PM2.5 in Delhi on that day. Punjab recorded 40,677 fires between September 15 and November 11, and Haryana 2,880 in the same period.
PM 2.5 refers to fine polluting particles (20 times thinner than human hair) that can enter our lungs and cause respiratory ailments. This month, farm fires’ share in Delhi’s PM 2.5 was 17 percent.
Until November 9, Sangrur district, which is home to Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann’s constituency of Dhuri, recorded the highest number of farm fires in the state at 5,207, followed by Patiala with 3,167. Kaithal recorded 592 – the highest in Haryana.
So, is Haryana doing a better job of handling stubble burning? Are farmers in Punjab burning more than their Haryana counterparts?
To find out, Newslaundry visited 15 villages in Sangrur, Patiala and Kaithal, covering a distance of 1,000 km across the two states. Here’s what we found.
A contrast in approach
Kaithal has 1.6 lakh hectares of land under paddy cultivation. Patiala has 2.20 lakh hectares, and Sangrur the most at 2.63 lakh hectares.
Source: Indian Council for Agriculture Research and the Kaithal district administration.
Conversations with farmers indicated that those in the Haryana district shun stubble burning for three key reasons: strict vigilance by the district administration, at least one baling machine per village, and compensation of Rs 1,000 per acre to farmers who don’t burn stubble.
In contrast, Patiala and Sangrur farmers spoke of fewer carrots and sticks to dissuade them from completely or partially burning their paddy residue.
The numbers tell the story too. In Kaithal, 9,553 subsidised agricultural machines manage the stubble as against 5,548 in Patiala and 8,500 in Sangrur. These machines can be purchased by farmers at a subsidy of 50 percent, or by farmer groups at a subsidy of 80 percent – they are not owned or deployed by the administration.
Of these machines, balers and super seeders have emerged as gamechangers in discouraging farmers from burning paddy residue.
A baler, part of off-site interventions, collects straw and compresses it into bales to be used for energy by industries. A super seeder, which is on-site and towed by a tractor, mixes standing stubble into soil to sow wheat seeds. This, as seen in various farmlands, spares farmers from burning their whole stock of stubble.
Kaithal has 210 balers – 10 times more than Sangrur, which has only 20, and three times more than Patiala, which has only 60. Kaithal has 1,977 super seeders, Sangrur 3,200, and Patiala 3,000.
Source: Indian Council for Agriculture Research and agriculture departments of the district administrations.
Farmers also struggle with the costs of hiring these machines. While Haryana has promised to give each farmer Rs 1,000 per acre if they use eco-friendly methods to manage stubble, Punjab has not announced a cash compensation yet.
So, in Sunam block of Sangrur, farmer Kripal Singh has lit a fire to clear the paddy stubble on part of his land.
“We did not have money to give the baler owner for the pickup,” he said. “He charges Rs 1,000 per acre. We also have to provide labourers with food and tea. Had the government given us financial assistance, we could have opted for the baler option. There is another eight acres of field where stubble is ready. But we have neither money nor enough time to wait for the baler owner as the soil will lose its moisture.”
Can he hire a super seeder? He said the rent is double – Rs 2,500 per acre.
There are only two farmers who own balers in Kripal’s village and two neighbouring ones in Sunam. One of the owners, Harvinder Kotra, told Newslaundry he can’t oblige every farmer since the demand for baling has gone up this year.
“We can bale only 20-30 acres of land every day,” he said. “We can’t do it for free as it involves transportation costs, since the biogas plant where we take the bales is at a distance.” Kotra said he sells the bales to the plant and other factories at Rs 150-170 per quintal.
Fires on farms in Dirba and Sunam blocks in Sangrur.
In Ugrahan village in Sunam, farmers shared similar concerns. The local cooperative society – comprising farmers from Ugrahan and two nearby villages – owns one super seeder and rotavator (used for cultivation) and two zero-drills to sow seeds, but no baler.
If given a choice between super seeders and balers, farmers in Ugrahan said they would pick the balers as they want to “see our fields clear of stubble” before sowing the next crop.
“We don’t have any industrial plant nearby that can get straw bales picked up for free. The closest is 30 km away, which takes stubble only from nearby villages,” said Gora Singh, a farmer in Ugrahan. “In our village and two others, we have just one baler machine. How many fields can it cover in 10-15 days? If we had at least two balers in the village, nobody would have burned their fields.”
The Punjab government it distributed several machines to farmers, stubble in the state. But Joginder Singh, a Bharatiya Kisan Union leader in Ugrahan, said, “I don’t see much on the ground.” However, he said burning has “significantly reduced” this year.
Last week, Punjab agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said the state has baled 20 lakh tonnes of straw, compared to 12 lakh last year, and generated a total of 2.3 crore tonnes of paddy straw. But in the 12 villages visited across Patiala and Sangrur, Newslaundry did not find any balers owned by farmer groups. Gurjent Singh, a farmer in Patiala’s Nabha block, said, “If the government gives us machinery, it will surely help.”
In the same block, Roop Singh owns one baler. He agreed that if the government offers cash compensation to farmers and actively pushes for an increase in the number of machines by reducing the subsidised prices, stubble burning will come down. “We sell bales to whoever gives us a good price,” he said, adding that he gets around Rs 170 a quintal. “We cut and pick up bales without any charge from farmers’ fields.”
A super seeder on a farm in Nabha block, Patiala.
A baler at work in Patiala.
Cash and constant vigilance
Another factor that worked in Haryana’s favour is strict vigilance by authorities.
“Farmers were afraid of penalties,” said Ajmer Singh,a farmer in Jaswanti village in Kaithal. “In our village, at least two farmers were fined for stubble fire. So, the fear of penalty also discouraged farmers from burning.”
Dr Karam Chand, the deputy director of Kaithal district’s agriculture department, told Newslaundry the district administration had collected Rs 9.10 lakh as penalties from 402 farmers in the district.
In contrast, collected Rs 7.12 lakh from 285 farmers as penalties, though Sangrur recorded 10 times more instances of stubble burning than Kaithal.
The lack of cash compensation in Punjab was also felt. Earlier this year, the Punjab government proposed a cash incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre, of which it said the central government should contribute Rs 1,500 per acre and the remaining by the governments of Delhi and Punjab. , and the cash incentive never happened.
“This time, farm fires have reduced by half. If the government had provided some cash compensation and enough machines, this would have had a good impact,” said Gurcharan Singh, a farmer in Lakhmeerwala in Sangrur. “Now, farmers understand the issue of air pollution as they are the first to inhale toxic fumes.”
But in Haryana too, where farmers get a cash incentive of Rs 1,000 per acre, not all of them know how to claim it. Agriculture officer Chand told Newslaundry the amounts will be deposited in the farmers’ bank accounts by the end of November.
Joginder Singh, the BKU leader in Ugrahan, added that Rs 1,000 per acre is not enough. “Even the Supreme Court said farmers should be given Rs 2,500 per acre for not burning,” he pointed out.
Meanwhile in Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has pitching for a “bio-decomposer” developed by the Indian Institute of Agriculture Research. But it’s still among farmers in Punjab, since there is only a 15-20 day window between harvesting and sowing when the bio-decomposer must be sprayed. The solution then takes 20 to 25 days to decompose the residue.
“After spraying decomposer, I had to cultivate the land and irrigate it regularly,” said a farmer in Nabha. “It involved a lot of post-spraying labour and time. We don’t have the luxury of time here. Worse, the end result is not good. Even if you don’t use the decomposer, the stubble will decompose on its own if you regularly irrigate and cultivate the land across those days.”
Surjeet Singh, a farmer in Patiala’s Bauran Kalan, agreed. “We need something that can decompose stubble in five or 10 days,” he said.
Photos by P Madhu Kumar.
Update at 7.47 pm, Nov 11: There are a total of 8,500 subsidised agricultural machines in Sangrur, not 6,800. This has been corrected.
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