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NCR braces for smoky days as stubble burning starts in Punjab, Haryana

Sanjeeb Mukherjee/New Delhi 11 Oct 18 | 07:15 PM

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Though the number of stubble-burning sites in Punjab and Haryana has declined considerably since last year — at least till now — farmers continue to do so this year as well. Many of them claim that the high price of straw-sorting machines as well their shortage is forcing them to resort to the method that leads to air pollution.

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Every year, the burning of leftover straw from paddy cultivation leads to acute air pollution in the National Capital Region at the start of winter. A number of solutions has been suggested, including seeder machines, which do on-site straw management.

Farmers in Punjab, however, claim the price of the machines has been artificially inflated this year. State government officials said against a requirement of 35,000 seeder machines, farmers have so far been supplied with only about 4,500. Some more will be added in the next five to seven days.

In neighbouring Haryana, the situation is somewhat better. State government officials said between October 8 and 10 this year, incidents of stubble-burning have been 85 per cent fewer than the previous year. But, this can change quickly as more and more fields are cleared of paddy-straw. The actual situation would be known only in mid-October, when farmers near New Delhi start burning crop remnants.

Problems in Punjab

Paddy or basmati is cultivated over 3 million hectares in Punjab; straw management is required for about 2 million hectares. For the rest, farmers manage it. The state produces 20 million tonnes of paddy-straw annually. The Centre gives a 50 per cent subsidy to farmers for buying straw-management equipment. If cooperatives or farmers’ groups or farmer-producer companies buy these machines, the subsidy amount increases to 80 per cent. 

Happy Seeder Machines — the most common equipment for on-field straw management — does not involve removing stubble. Wheat seeds are planted, without the machine getting jammed. 

From this financial year (2018-19), the Union government is providing Rs 17.56 billion for on-field management of paddy-straw in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. But, problems persist.

Experts said the per-unit price of Happy Seeder Machines should be between Rs 100,000 and 115,000. Since the government announced the subsidy, the price has gone up to Rs 150,000-155,000 per unit.

“Someone is trying to manipulate the market," said Vikram Ahuja, a farmer and agri-entrepreneur working in crop-residue management.

The utility of the machines was also a challenge for their adoption.

He added that farmers used straw-management machines for four to six hours for a few weeks. “As the machines remain idle most of the times, these are economically unviable," Ahuja added. 

He suggested that custom hiring could be a solution.

The case of Haryana 

State government officials said about 3,000 straw-management machines have been delivered, and 1,100 custom hiring centres set up.  

The focus is on opening more custom hiring centres, so that the problem of machines being very expensive does not escalate.

“Satellite images showed last year that there were 200 fire sites everyday from October 8 to 10. This year, there are only about 30 fires," said J S Chahal, joint director, agriculture engineering, Haryana.

Paddy and basmati are cultivated over 1.3 million hectares in the state. It produces 12 million tonnes of straw annually. 

Last year, the state had about 400 hiring centres. This year, the plan is to open 1,230 more. Besides Happy Seeders, rotavators, and mulchers, there is a host of other equipment such as balers and rakes, which provide long-term solutions. But, they are prohibitively expensive for farmers, and the government subsidy does not extend to these. 

"One baler and rake costs roughly about Rs 1.6 million. It also needs a biomass-based power-generation plant within 20-25 kilometres, where the bales can be sold. As farmers don't buy these costly equipment, which are used hardly for 45-60 days in a year, it is for biomass contractors to buy a baler," said Himanshu Saini, senior manager, CLASS Agricultural Machinery.

Toxic air ahead

While the authorities grapple with the issue, the air in and around Delhi is likely to get worse in the days to come.

“About October 15, the wind will change direction over northwest India. This could carry the smoke from stubble-burning to Delhi. A drop in temperature and stagnant wind flow could lead to the formation of haze over the national capital," said Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist, Skymet.

With inputs from Arup Roychoudhury

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