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Death by breath: Why farmers say cheaper to pay fine for crop burning

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Written by Mallica Joshi | Karnal | Updated: October 13, 2018 4:50:56 am

Compared to the cost of specialised farm equipment required to manage stubble, farmers in Punjab and Haryana believe fines are cheaper.

On either side of the narrow, metalled road that cuts through Salaru village in Haryana’s Karnal district, lie open fields. Some still have a standing crop of paddy, ready for harvest, while a few others have only stalks and straw. The rest are on fire.

A 3-acre farm owned by Gulab Singh is among the ones on fire. Last year, he paid fines to the tune of Rs 24,000 for burning crop stubble and straw. The fine was meant to be a deterrent but on October 6, Singh’s farm was on fire again.

“We have no alternative,” he says, “We paid a fine last year and maybe it will happen again this year but spending at least Rs 5,000 per acre just to take care of the agricultural waste is not viable.” Every year, as winter and the rabi season, approaches, the air quality in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana nosedives as farmers set on fire the crop stubble and loose straw left after harvesting paddy. The Indian Express travelled to farms in villages in Punjab and Haryana to find that government deterrents and policies to curb stubble burning have had little impact on the ground. And compared to the cost of specialised farm equipment required to manage stubble, farmers in Punjab and Haryana believe fines are cheaper.

Also Read | All fiddle as crop stubble burns, farmers say solutions out of reach

Patiala’s Kalar Majri was adopted by the government as a model village last year. Even here, farmers are sceptical before the harvest where farmers have already begun discussing how support is dwindling. “Last year, balers came to our fields, made bales out of the paddy straw and took them away to local waste to energy plants— all for free. This year, the government wants us to buy or hire machines and manage on our own. Why will anyone want to do it,” said Balwinder Singh, a resident of Kalar Majri, the village that did not set a single field on fire last year.

Chairperson of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, K S Pannu, confirmed that there are no incentives for baling this year. “We are promoting in-situ management of agricultural waste this year. This is the best way and also enriches soil when the straw and stubble are incorporated in the soil,” he says.

So far, the government has preferred a carrot and stick approach. Fines for stubble burning are accompanied by subsidies ranging from 50 per cent to 80 per cent to buy farm equipment, such as Happy Seeders and the Super SMS combine attachment, which helps manage agricultural waste. But, farmers are either unaware or say the initiatives are not enough. And with heavy rains in the last 10 days of September that damaged crops and the sharp increase in diesel prices as compared to last year, farmers are more willing to burn the waste despite the government levied fines.

“I lost around 20 per cent of my crop in the rains that lashed the area on September 22 and 23. This setback, along with the high prices of diesel will only disincentivise farmers. On top of that, no officials have come to meet us or speak to us this year. Is imposing fines in this situation ideal? We all are waiting for a viable alternative,” says Kamaltej Singh, who owns a 50-acre field in Salaru.

According to farmers in Haryana, there has been a surge of around 25 per cent in diesel prices in October 2018 compared to the same time last year. According to several studies, including one conducted by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, stubble burning directly impacts air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). The ICAR study says that stubble burning increases carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70% and carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide by 7% and 2.1% respectively. The Northwesterly winds, prevalent during this time of the year, also carry pollutants towards Delhi-NCR.

Another farmer, Karamjit Singh from Karnal says: “Last year I earned Rs 50,000 per acre. This year it has come down to Rs 30,000. I can’t think of a reason to hire machinery to manage stubble this time.” Bir Dalwinder Singh, who owns a 60-acre farm in the village, has not set fire to agricultural waste on his farm for 6 years. “Paraali khtean di nahi, dimaag di dikkat hai. (Agricultural waste is not a problem of the fields but of the mind),” he says.

An M.Tech degree holder, Dalwinder Singh worked in a Gurgaon-based software company for five years before shifting to Kalar Majri after his older brother passed away. Since then, he has advocated the use of machinery to deal with stubble. However, he acknowledges the problems, faced particularly by smaller farmers.

“A Happy Seeder or a Super-SMS Combine attachment are used only to harvest paddy since it is only the paddy waste that is tough to manage. Telling a farmer to buy a machine that he/she will use only for a couple of days in a year is unwise. For the rest of the year, the machine has to be kept in a shed and in good shape. All of this costs money. This year, with the high diesel prices and crop damage, using machines will not be viable, especially for the small farmer,” he said.

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