Insights on stubble burning problem in Haryana from the farmers’ perspective.

Air pollution has impacts across industries, geographies, and even planets. Of late, global warming has triggered severe discussions about climate change, fuel consumption, and spiked precipitation levels. Amid all that’s already there, stubble burning further aggravates the issue of air pollution.

Premature deaths, breathing ailments, and more are unfortunate consequences of air pollution and stubble burning. We’ve always been told to take nothing for granted. However, when we talk about air and oxygen, have the ones preaching these ideologies followed the same? 

We clearly won’t be in such a grave situation if genuine efforts were made to manage the farm waste (stubble) with sincerity. Therefore, a humble request to all the preachers: practice what you preach and preach what you practice.

Air pollution levels are skyrocketing, diseases caused by the consumption of such polluted air continue to increase, and the administrations have always played the blame game over the years.

The human, striving day and night to earn bread for their family, feels like a fish out of water, worrying (and rightly so) that fresh air and drinkable water will soon become the most expensive commodities!

Who is to blame? Is it the farmers who need to stop these burnings they’ve been carrying out for decades? Why hasn’t the government and administration done anything about it for such a long time? Or have they?

We’ll cover all of this and much more in this blog as we dive deep into the root causes and probable solutions of stubble burning from a farmer’s perspective.

What is stubble burning, and why is it happening?

Stubble burning or Parali burning is a method of getting rid of agricultural waste like straw stubble, residual leaves, stalks, etc. It’s more prevalent in areas that leverage the combined harvesting method for farming. The idea is to remove paddy crop residues to make space for further sowing activities.

Stubble burning is conducted on a large scale when farmers sow wheat from the end of September to November. As a result, it has contributed significantly to air pollution, especially in North India (NCR and Haryana).

Stubble burning releases several harmful compounds, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, sulphur oxides, and nitrogen oxides, alongside particulate matter (PM10 & PM2.5).

The question is, why is stubble burning a recurring phenomenon year on year? Why can’t the farmers just come up with a solution to this hazardous activity? Well, it’s more like questioning the beggars on why they continue to persist with begging instead of finding a job.

The answer is simple: they are not left with any other viable option. We’ll discuss this in detail in the later parts of the blog.

For now, it’s critical to understand why this is happening. The Indian agricultural ecosystem follows a stringent rice-wheat rotation policy that generates stubble in enormous quantities. It is estimated that 352 MT of stubble is generated annually in India due to wheat and rice cultivation.

There is no way to avoid stubble generation because the demand for wheat and rice will grow. However, what can be controlled significantly is stubble burning. Currently, the farmers are left with no other choice than to get rid of this waste via burning to make space for further cultivation activities.

However, an optimised approach toward controlling and managing stubble burning can bring about a much-needed change for the farmers and the environment.

How significant is stubble burning’s threat and its impact in India?

Stubble burning has acute, deeply-rooted, and life-threatening impacts in India. It significantly affects the air quality index (AQI) because of its harmful composition. Moreover, the air deterioration doesn’t confine itself to the region where stubble burning is conducted.

Delhi, for example, witnesses life-threatening AQI levels (consistently over 480) because of the stubble burnings carried out in UP, Haryana, and Punjab. It forms a toxic cloud (smog) over Delhi that causes severe problems, including lung diseases, irritation in the eye, uneasiness, and more.

The elevated air pollution levels lead to numerous neurological, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In addition, respiratory disorders such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung capacity loss, bronchitis, cancer, etc., are also diagnosed.

Apart from serious health hazards, stubble burning also causes large-scale soil erosion; this, in turn, reduces the overall cultivable land left with the farmers.

However, the concerns don’t end here. India also witnesses major forest fire chains in summer in various parts of the country due to global warming. In addition, the air pollution caused by fuel combustion and industrial release further adds to the agony.

Humans are the ones that suffer, both biologically and financially, due to all the deficiencies and loopholes in farm waste management.

Importance of farm waste management

The waste generated from farming activities includes straw, grass, plants, etc. These can be fed directly to the livestock, while the remaining can be used for compost. Here’s the importance of farm waste management:

Paramount for the environment

As harsh as it may sound, any waste left unattended is a seed sown towards environmental degradation. However, farm waste is entirely manageable, and a few innovative steps can quickly lower the used-to-burnt stubble ratio.

The maths is simple: increased utilisation of farm waste will directly reduce the quantity to be burnt. But unfortunately, we’re far from this ratio in today’s time, and it’s the environment that has to pay the price for it.

Farm waste management also promotes advanced techniques for safely disposing of the waste generated during the harvesting and cultivation cycles.

Helps promote composting

Optimised farm waste management leverages biotechnology to create compost from agro-waste. This process is called vermiculture, and it makes use of biodegradable hemicellulose and cellulose compounds present in the waste.

The valuable fertiliser produced via composting enriches the soil and makes it nutrient abundant.

Agro-waste products 

Farm waste can be used to manufacture several agro-waste products. These include biofuels, animal feed, enzymes, antibiotics, vitamins, and antioxidants via solid-state fermentation (SSF).

The idea is to avoid stubble burning by:

  • First, utilising the maximum quantity of farm waste for composting and creating agro-waste products
  • Next, leveraging the farm waste management techniques to dispose of as much waste as possible safely
  • Finally, burn the remaining (if any) stubble in a controlled way

Are the farmers to be blamed for stubble burnings?

It’s an unfortunate scenario for the farmers who frequently end up on the wrong side of such arguments even after contributing significantly to an agricultural economy like ours.

Responsible disposal of stubble is a time-consuming process, and time is what the farmers don’t have. In addition, they need to prepare the soil for seeding for the next season right after harvesting, and stubble stands in their way.

Burning is a minimalist process they adopt to clear the stubble occupied land. So, are they to be blamed? The ground reality is that farmers try to use farm waste to the fullest extent. Despite that, our research revealed that out of 20 MT of stubble generated, only 20% of it (~ 4 MT) was utilised every season. The rest of it was either put to fire or dumped in haste. 

Only if the farmers are provided with streamlined farm waste management solutions with monetary compensation (which they richly deserve) can this issue be addressed at the grassroots levels.

Where are the gaps?

Any support from the government, corporate entities, and other organisations can change the landscape of stubble burning in India. It’s the government’s responsibility to foresee adequate demand for agro waste. The next step is administering the end-to-end management of stubble waste.

This process includes:

  • Sorting the supply chain of stubble waste procurement from source (the quantity left after maximum utilisation)
  • Processing the stubble at large scales for biofuel production
  • Handling the disposal of the bi-products left after stubble utilisation for feeding, composting, energy generation, and more
  • Making the entire process repeatable to avoid future conflicts with farmers, authorities, and administrations
  • Keeping the price points up to date to be fair with the farmers and ensure they’re encouraged to manage stubble in an organised manner

Now is the right time for private entities (going through a startup wave) to address the stubble burning issue. In addition, large-scale companies working closely with the agricultural industry also need to chip in and make valuable contributions to this cause.

All in all, several operational entities need to come together, start right from the grassroots levels, and eradicate what has now become a dangerous problem in India.

What is the government doing (and not doing) regarding this issue?

Stubble burning is not a modern-day issue that has suddenly popped out of nowhere. India has always been an agricultural-centric economy, and with each cultivation cycle, stubble has also been produced.

In fact, for every 2 acres of cultivation, the farmers only procure 50% of the valuable crop while the other half is stubble/crop residue!

What’s been lacking over the years is the media’s disinterest in throwing some light on this issue and making it reach the masses. In addition, the governments have made promises but haven’t quite aced in execution.

The more significant concern is the blame game played on the farmers. For example, forest fires that happen in summer account for considerable air pollution (more than three times compared to stubble burning), but all the blame is burdened on the tired shoulders of the farmers.

The government has set up bio-fuel power plants that require this stubble for energy generation. However, there are quantitative differences in the demand and supply of this farm waste; that is when the government needs to go the extra mile and offer financial security to the farmers.

How? By setting goals for purchasing stubble, much like the other crops, to fit the overall crop yields in a contractual agreement. It’s also the best foot forward because the introduction of bans, jailing farmers conducting stubble burning, and imposing hefty fines haven’t yielded the desired results.

The government needs to strike the right chords to ensure farmers don’t pounce on crops with the best monetary value. But unfortunately, the administration hasn’t lived up to these expectations, resulting in unmonitored stubble burnings.

What’s the role of civilians/civil societies in stubble burning?

Civil societies can play diverse roles concerning stubble burning. They can become the voice of the farmers by raising serious concerns about stubble burning, air pollution, soil erosion, etc., to the government and private entities.

Moreover, they also play a critical role in shaping the perception of the farm waste burning issue. Anti-farmer opinions further drown the farmers who are already blamed for air pollution (overshadowing the forest fires).

They can also take up individual responsibilities to interact with the farmers, educate them about the new policies that the government aims to introduce and motivate them to participate in the safe disposal of stubble.

The idea is to bring about a small change today and hope that bigger (and positive) changes follow.

How is capitalism impacting the scenario?

Capitalism is a fancy term for the treatment most farmers get from private organisations. Those willing to use the farm waste expect the farmers to take care of stubble collection, segregation, initial processing, inventory management, and shipping.

Farmers don’t get any handsome (or even respectful) compensation in exchange for this transaction to aggravate things further. However, it doesn’t boil down to the payment in most cases simply because farmers, who’re already running with stringent timelines, can in no possible way find time for stubble waste management.

Is there any viable solution/way forward?

The best part about a solution is that it’s always there. With the right attitude and noble mindset, it won’t take long to fix the stubble burning issue in India with the technology and resources we have. Some such solutions include:

Revisit the existing reforms

The stubble price of wheat and rice hovers somewhere around 5 to 7 ₹ per kg. So first, the agencies must come up with proposals that move towards price stability. This process will help the farmers understand the scope of the earnings they’ll make from stubble waste.

Furthermore, it’s high time that waste collection becomes organised and regular. It’s a behavioural change that needs to happen right from the grassroots levels.

The farmers do everything in their control to avoid stubble burning. They feed the edible farm residue to cattle and wait for buyers to purchase the remaining stubble from nearby villages.

However, the lack of organised stubble management is evident and needs the support of the government and private entities to overcome.

Focus on balance

Farmers can not utilise stubble waste entirely for composting, feeding, manufacturing agro-waste, or other activities. Therefore, focusing on a single-ended solution won’t achieve the desired results.

It’s imperative to maintain equilibrium without overburdening any facet of stubble waste management. Therefore, each step taken by the administration should lower the stubble burning levels.

Today, agro-waste is utilised for producing biodegradable packaging and tableware. The best part is that these bio-fibres take only three months to degrade. Moreover, companies are also working on creating organic manure from stubble waste.

However, what’s been lacking is the limited scale of these operations, confined reach, and very little communication with the farmers.

Therefore, an innovative collaboration between the government and private entities is the need of the hour. The stakeholders must brainstorm to explore creative solutions that cater to the stubble burning problem in India. The utilisation of products made from agro-waste is a great way forward that can potentially replace the unsustainable options that currently exist in the system. 

Make the farmers financially secure.

It’s critical to make the farmers financially secure for the valuable crop and the stubble. The government and private organisations can make it happen by making contractual agreements with the farmers for the demand & supply of the crop and farm waste.

It’s a long-term solution that makes it easier for farmers to manage the Turri and Parali stubbles generated during wheat and rice harvesting. In addition, such a mechanism fosters rich cash flow without deviating the farmers from growing particular types of crops.

About

Senergy Pallet is a climate action startup operating in sustainable packaging by driving innovation with its eco-friendly and recyclable pallets for the logistics industry. The company’s novel solution uses timber and agricultural waste to manufacture pallets, thereby reducing carbon emissions from the current alternatives of wooden and plastic pallets. The distinctive features of the technology are superior in technicalities like load carrying capacity, space-saving in stacking, moisture resistance, and, most importantly, the economics of pallet purchase.

Abhijeet Parmar, Founder of Senergy Pallet Pvt. Ltd is working to introduce Eco-friendly Logistics Pallets in Asia-Pacific Region. He aims to bring the focus on outstanding clean-tech startups in India. ‘It’s not just that we have a huge talent pool in our country, but it is also the need of the hour’, says Abhijeet.

ecoHQ x Senergy Pallet

Senergy Pallet, our advocacy partner, is bringing insights straight from the grassroots on the Indian agriculture and waste management space. ecoHQ will publish articles and case studies based on the field research and data.

Credits

Authored by Ravi Gupta and strategised by Deepa Sai (founder of ecoHQ)

Ravi is an evangelist for sustainability and an agent for change who thrives on creating an impact with his words. Professionally, with his expertise in end-to-end marketing, he helps to grow businesses (that are conscious of the ecosystem).

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