Standing in his half-burned field, Gurmeet Singh, a paddy farmer in Sangrur’s Sibiya village, acknowledged a gradual change. “We only burn loose straw, not standing stalks,” he said. Gurmeet cultivates 30 acres of leased land and this is the second year in a row when he has only partially burned paddy stubble.
He is among a growing number of farmers in Patiala and Sangrur, in Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Singh Mann’s Dhuri constituency, who no longer burn their entire stock of stubble. As Delhi chokes from air pollution after the Diwali season, stubble burning in neighbouring states, especially Punjab, worsens the situation. This , it contributed 17 percent of the hazardous pollutant PM 2.5 in Delhi’s air. This harvesting season, Punjab has recorded 45,319 fire counts so far, a decrease of 28 percent from the same period last year. Partly this is down to the state’s farmers burning less paddy stubble.
Newslaundry visited 12 villages across Patiala and Sangrur to understand how the farmers are responding to the challenge of stubble management. Until just a few years ago, the farmland this time of the year would have been a black patchwork. Now, the charred patches are set in golden stubbled fields.
There are two types of paddy farm residue: loose straw left behind by the combined harvester and standing stalks. The loose straw is about a third of the paddy farm residue, said Ajmer Singh Dhatt, additional director of research at Punjab Agriculture University.
Most of the farmers are burning just the loose straw spread out over standing stalks by the combined harvester. Earlier, they would cut standing stalks, leave them to dry for a few days and then set the whole field on fire. The reason for this new practice, the farmers said, is the smooth functioning of the super seeder, which can cut standing stalks, mix them in soil and plant the next wheat crop at the same time. In the 12 villages Newslaundry visited, this was the stubble management machinery most widely used. “A super seeder can’t negotiate a huge amount of stubble. If there was loose straw, the super seeder would get ‘jumps’ and could not do proper sowing,” Gurmeet explained.
Super seeders are 35 percent of the farm residue management machines in Punjab, totalling 1.07 lakh, as per data provided by Punjab’s agriculture department. Introduced in 2019, there are 37,508 super seeders with individual farmers and their groups now. Their number has only grown over the years.
“Now we burn only half the stubble,” said Gurcharan Singh, a farmer at Lakhmirwala village in Sangrur who adopted the new practice three years ago. He claimed that nearly half of the farmers in the village have started doing the same as more super seeders are being used. The height of the paddy plant is four-five feet. The harvester chops off the top half of the plant, takes in the grain and leaves behind loose straw that’s passed through its conveyor belts.
Aren’t standing stalks burnt when the loose straw is lit? “They remain green so they can’t catch fire. Just the dry top half gets burnt. So, overall, it’s 50 percent stubble burning. Around half of the farmers in this village have partially burned their fields this time,” said Gurcharan, who owns three acres of land.
Some of the farmers still burn down the entire stubble, in particular marginal farmers who can’t afford to rent super seeders, which cost Rs 2,200-Rs 2,500 per acre, or wait for their turn to use the machines owned by farmer groups or fellow farmers. The farmer association in Lakhmirwala has two super seeders, which cater to a pair of neighbouring villages as well. “If we get more machines, then at least complete burning will stop,” said Gurcharan Singh.
Another reason for some marginal farmers in Patiala burning the whole stubble is that they believe the residue might infest the wheat crop. “The government should solve our ‘sundi’ problem,” said Gurjant Singh, who owns four acres in Ramgarh village of Patiala, referring to borer infestation. “Those with small farmlands can’t take the risk. Their fear of ‘sundi’ makes them burn the whole field.”
The farmer association of Ramgarh and two neighbouring villages don’t have a super seeder, only individual farmers do. Gurjant believes that half of the village’s farmers have partially burned their stubble wholly.
A farmer with three acres at Mahlan in Sangrur burned his field for fear of ‘sundi’. “It’s compulsion. We are not fond of burning things. It’s just that small farmers can’t take the risk. For a big farmer it does not matter if the wheat yield is a few quintals less than expected. But for a marginal farmer, a small drop in yield makes a huge impact,” said the farmer who asked not to be named for fear of being penalised for stubble burning.
Citing a survey by central and state agriculture officers from three years ago, RK Singh, the Punjab project coordinator of the Indian Council for Agriculture Research, said there was no link between paddy residue and ‘sundi’.
Gurvinder Singh, director of the state agriculture department, said the problem was limited to around 300 acres in Patiala and Sangrur last year, and wasn’t from mixing of paddy straw in soil during sowing. Not all farmers Newslaundry spoke with raised the ‘sundi’ flag.
In Bauran Kalan village of Patiala, Jasdev Singh said the farmers were doing their best to reduce farm fires. “Farmers are aware of the issue of pollution. We are doing our best with whatever we have. This time farm fires in my village have gone down by at least 50 percent due to partial burning,” said Jasdev, who farms 10 acres and uses a super seeder on his half-charred field.
In Dirba, Sagrur, Gurjeet Singh now burns only the loose straw on his 14-acre farm. “This is the first time I am using a super seeder for sowing and cutting of standing stalks. Those who burn their stubble completely are marginal farmers as they can only rent or own only old machinery. It’s cheaper by Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 per acre,” he said.
‘Fire intensity drops in Punjab’
A satellite dataset from CREAMS Lab of the Indian Agriculture Research Institute indicates that farm fires in the low fire intensity class have increased. This means more and more fires are reducing in intensity and points to the impact of partial burning. In the low fire intensity class (0-3 watts per sq metre), fire events in Punjab have increased by 7.39 percent compared to last year in the kharif season. In the high intensity category (more than 9 watts per sq metre) it has dropped by 1.41 percent, according to Vinay K Sehgal, principal scientist at the institute. A low fire intensity indicates less burning of residue and thus lower emissions of particulate matter, he said.
Geo analyst Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, though, pointed out the limitations of the fire intensity data: single digital fluctuation in percentages and only a few years of data. “Another is that the active fire may be detected when it’s less intensive or not so in the previous recording,” he said.
Ravindra Khaiwal, professor of community medicine and public health at PGIMER in Chandigarh, also said that the percentage change in the high intensity fire class was too small to draw any conclusion, but “it may not be entirely incorrect”.
Can eyes in the sky differentiate between partial or complete burning?
Can satellites detect a partial fire and count it as a separate event of fire? Scientists say yes. “If the burned field, whether it’s a full farm or 50 percent of it, is within the pixel size of the respective sensors, it will report it as an active fire,” said Hiren Jethva, a scientist at the American space agency NASA.
Sehgal offered a similar view. “Thermal sensing satellites measure the land surface temperature but give output only in binaries: either it’s burnt or not burnt. So if half of the field is on fire, chances are that the whole pixel footprint will be registered as burnt. There have been experiments done to show that even a fire in an area of 10x10 square metres can be detected as a fire event by satellites if there is sufficient fire intensity,” he said.
There are two space-based sensors to detect active fires: the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-Radiometer, or MODIS, aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites, and its improved version, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, aboard the Suomi-NPP satellite. They orbit the earth twice per day and provide real time data on fires.
Until November 13 this harvesting season, Punjab’s count of fires had come down to 45,319 from 62,863 — a 28 percent drop from the same period last year. In the corresponding period in 2020, the fire count was 79,751.
An official in Punjab’s agriculture department claimed that their ground experience suggests that most detected fires could be of partial burns. “The government does not want farmers to even partially burn their field. We want them to completely stop burning. But you know we can’t publicly say that farmers are at least burning part of the stubble,” he said.
Remote sensing scientists believe that VIIRS, with more detection capability than MODIS, can’t overestimate fire counts. Scientists give two reasons. One, farm fires are short-lived in Punjab and may completely die during satellite overpass time, which is 1.30 am and 1.30 pm. Two, cloudy and hazy conditions obstruct the view of satellites.
Prof Khaiwal said that various factors, such as land temperature, sun’s position and cloud cover influence fire detection. “Under pristine observing conditions, even smaller flaming fires of 50 square metres can be detected,” he added.
In terms of paddy straw burnt, the data from IARI shows that Punjab has burnt 45.2 percent, 34.1 percent and 45.2 percent of the total stubble generated in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21. This year’s data isn’t available. According to this data, Punjab harvested 25 million tonnes of paddy stubble.
Jagdish Singh, joint director in the agriculture department, said Punjab generated over 20 million tonnes of paddy farm residue this year, half of which was managed through onsite and offsite measures. He didn’t specify the measures, though. “Compared to last year, the fire count dropped by 25 percent. So there is progress. I think by next year, we will see fewer to no farm fires in Punjab,” he said.
Dhatt said he believed that in the next two-three years, farm firms will stop altogether as more machines are employed and there’s more awareness about the health impact of pollution.
Pictures by Shivnarayan Rajpurohit.