Paying for manual harvesting is the cheapest, most eco-friendly and sustainable way out. Government must enable farmers to switch to manual labour to harvest paddy
It’s that time of the year again when the air quality in Delhi-NCR and surrounding areas worsens to the ‘severe’ category. Starting from mid-October, the air in the region becomes so hazardous that it seems like a deadly gas chamber. All the government agencies, like the Central Pollution Control Board, Commission for Air Quality Management, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), all the laws and measures taken and all the governments — central and of the states of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — who are responsible for monitoring, management and control of the situation, have failed to curb this pollution for almost a decade now. The front pages of newspapers show pictures of farmers burning paddy stubble to dramatically highlight that it’s the farmers who are the villains of the story. All the money spent on machines, stubble management systems and solutions with fancy names like happy-seeders, balers, bio-decomposers etc goes down the drain every year without any positive results. Then the blame game starts till the situation improves naturally and everybody goes back to business-as-usual till the same time next year.
Let’s examine the so-called ‘main source’ of this pollution — the annual stubble burning exercise — and also propose the simplest, cheapest, most effective and sustainable eco-friendly solution to it. The main sources of pollution in the Delhi-NCR are local traffic, industries, construction works, sweeping of roads, local biomass burning, hotels, restaurants, households, crop residue burning etc. If we factually consider the contribution of stubble burning to this pollution it mostly falls in the range of 15 to 30 per cent during this period, as per the government agencies’ data. Most of the stubble burning is being done by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana, if we ignore a few hundred incidents in other states that don’t have any significant impact.
The genesis of the problem lies in the Sub-soil Water Conservation Acts passed in 2009 to conserve groundwater by the Punjab and Haryana governments. This law prohibits early paddy plantation, delaying it by two-three weeks towards mid-June and beyond, so that the paddy plantation in these states is done nearer to the arrival time of the monsoon in July, thus conserving groundwater. Since, by law, the crop is now planted later, obviously it’s ready to be harvested only later. Thus we have mandatorily delayed the crop cycle by two-three weeks. Earlier, after the completion of paddy harvesting in October, the farmers had a window of about four to six weeks to sow the next rabi crop, mainly wheat. But now that window has shrunk by half due to the delayed plantation of paddy.
Traditionally, farmers had been harvesting paddy manually, leaving no stubble. This is also an eco-friendly method. Labour was available and shifted from field to field completing the harvesting activity over a period of six weeks. Paddy is still harvested manually all over India, except in Punjab and Haryana where the number of days for harvesting has been halved due to delayed plantation. Due to the smaller window of harvesting, all the paddy farmers need labour to harvest fields almost at the same time. So, the manual harvesting labour becomes scarce and costly. It’s a question of man-days after all — if the number of days is halved, the number of labourers must be doubled to complete the task in time. Consequently, the farmers use machines to harvest the paddy crop but mechanical harvesting leaves about two feet of stubble in the field which has to be burnt to quickly clear the fields for the next crop. Mechanical harvesting and stubble management requires about Rs 4,000 per acre which is unaffordable for most of the farmers, so they’re constrained to burn the stubble.
But this practice has huge costs. Stubble burning leads to depletion of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium and other micronutrients that are essential to the soil health and good crop yields. This entails application of extra quantities of these nutrients in the next crop cycle. We import huge quantities of these chemical fertilisers and also pay huge amounts of fertiliser subsidies — it’s likely to exceed Rs 2.25 lakh crores this year. This raises import bills, increases our current account deficit, fertiliser subsidies and thus fiscal deficit. Stubble burning also releases harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to pollution and climate change. Also, earthworms and other useful creatures get killed in the burning process. All this has consequences like lower yields and degradation of soil. Mechanical harvesting also uses costly diesel which means more burning of fossil fuels, increased petroleum imports and the attendant costs. The pollution and haze in Delhi-NCR also negatively affects tourism, investments and affects the reputation of the country.
The best, sustainable and most eco-friendly solution is to harvest paddy manually, which leaves no stubble to burn. After manual harvesting and manual thrashing, paddy residue is used as fodder for animals that convert it into milk or animal power and cow-dung. A part is used as bedding for animals in the winter. Cow dung and bedding residue is recycled as natural manure into the fields. All this happens without any pollution. Manual harvesting thus also mitigates the acute fodder shortage problem that leads to higher milk prices for consumers. Natural manure leads to reduced application of chemical fertilisers in the next crop cycle. The crop residue can also be sold to industries that may use it for packaging, making cardboard boxes or other biodegradable items, producing ethanol, electricity generation etc.
For manual harvesting of paddy and subsequent manual stubble management the governments should pay what it costs to do it — about Rs 4,000 per acre. MNREGA funds could also be used to partly finance it. If handsome payments are made to the labourers then large numbers would migrate to Punjab and Haryana to do manual harvesting of paddy, as they do every year for paddy plantation in June-July, generating lucrative employment opportunities for them. It will also partly mitigate the rural unemployment problem. Defaming and penalising farmers, subsidising costly fossil fuel guzzling machines and blaming others is no solution. The governments only nudged the farmers towards wheat and paddy crops in Punjab and Haryana to ensure the food security of the country when we were dependent on imported food grains to feed our people. We must be grateful to our farmers for turning a food grains-deficient and importing country to food grains-surplus and exporting country. We can’t push the bill on to the farmers or punish them for ensuring the food security of the nation. Farmers can also be nudged towards crop diversification by ensuring legal guarantee of MSP and assured purchase of other crops like coarse cereals, oilseeds and pulses. This will reduce the area under water guzzling crops like paddy in Punjab and Haryana, and also ensure self-reliance in vegetable oils. We import about 60 per cent of our edible oils annually. In 2021-22 we spent about $19 billion of foreign exchange to import vegetable oils.
Paying for manual harvesting is the cheapest, most eco-friendly and sustainable solution to stubble burning. It saves the water, the air and the earth with least costs. All other options take a heavy toll, directly or indirectly, in terms of public health, soil and environment degradation, global warming, extreme weather events, compromised food security, increased milk prices and food inflation, purchase of air-purifiers, curtailment of tourism and investments, closure of schools and institutions, banned vehicles, restricted economic activities, pollution monitoring costs and corruption by enforcement agency employees, wasteful expenditure in smog towers or water sprinklers, increased fertiliser and oil imports, increased subsidies and fiscal deficit, among others. We must pay farmers so that they switch back to manual harvesting of paddy. It has all the benefits at very low costs to society. When we are talking about spending trillions of dollars to fight global warming, contain carbon emissions and climate change at COP27, why not begin by paying a few thousand crore rupees to farmers for 100 per cent manual harvesting of paddy? It’s worth it: Let’s not be penny-wise but pound-foolish.