Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for around 58% of Indians. India is one of the major producers of the most important cereals and cash crops in the world. As a result, the primary sector of India is poised to grow tremendously and increase its contribution to the world food trade every year. Thus, definitely Indian agriculture is one of the major facets of our development and self- sufficiency which has turned India from a begging bowl at the time of her independence to a major exporter of agricultural and allied produce. These are the reasons which highlight the fact that agriculture cannot be underestimated even though its contribution to the gross domestic production has reduced and other sectors are growing at a fast pace.
Nonetheless, we know that every coin has two sides. As we feel proud and overwhelmed at the immense development of the Indian agricultural sector, we cannot overlook a humongous threat which it brings along.
India is the second largest producer of one of the two major food staples of the world- rice. Rice is the favourite staple of Indians as well. 90% of the rice produced in India is consumed by its people only. Due to the high rate of consumption, paddy harvesting has also grown over the years and to facilitate this growth of production, the farmers had to turn to mechanized harvesting rather than harvesting paddy manually. But there’s a lot more to what meets the eye.
This mechanized rice harvesting leaves taller and massive crop residue when compared to manual harvesting. If we visit the paddy fields of Punjab and Haryana, two major rice producing states, we will notice harvesters leaving out 1-2 feet tall stubbles, which can reduce to a petty 6 inches in the case of manual harvesting. This residue or ‘parali’ as it is called in the local language takes 1.5 months to decompose while farmers are not left with time to sow the next major staple, wheat. The process of stubble burning is quick, easy, cheap, and efficient to augment the nutritive value of the soil for the next crop in line. And it is inevitable to do away with rice residue because it is harder to chew and has high silica content because of which it cannot even be used as fodder for cattle.
The imminent hazard which comes along with this easy- looking process of stubble burning is air pollution. The dark plumes of smoke rising from the fields of states like Haryana and Punjab smother northern India, especially Delhi every year. Albeit Delhi has a number of other factors like industrial and vehicular emissions which reduce the air quality to hazardous levels, stubble burning, and its smoke is an equally major reason behind Delhi’s increasing air pollution.
Every year, Punjab rice farms collectively burn 7 to 8 million metric tonnes of leftover rice residue in the months of October and November which is a major contributor to the haze of pollution or smog which takes on Delhi every winter. People living in Delhi face incessant hazards like breathing problems, asthma, and other dangerous lung infections, itching and burning eyes and much more. COVID-19 became even more perilous for Delhi because the smog made people even more vulnerable to infection and reduced their rate of recovery too. And it is not just Delhi which suffers; these fumes endanger the lives of millions of people living across the whole of northern India.
Over the years, governments have tried every trick in the book to fight the dangers posed by the massive stubble burning process. They have tried to pitch alternatives to the hazardous activity, they have tried to ban it, and they have imposed fines on farmers for continuing with it and have even thrown a few behind the bars for their offence. Yes, stubble burning was a criminal offence until recently, when the protesting farmers’ unions demanded the de- criminalization of the same during their rounds of negotiations with the central government and the government agreed to this. With reference to this point, it is intriguing to realize that Greta Thunberg didn’t pay heed to the fact that the same farmers’ unions which she sides today with wanted the de- criminalization of the activity which harms the environment, and she didn’t play the role of a responsible environmentalist this time.
Coming back to the initiatives taken by governments to prevent stubble burning, they also rewarded many farmers for not doing so. But, in August 2020, the current Punjab government claimed that it could not afford to pay so many farmers. The crux of the matter is that farmers are a crucial vote bank for politicians too. That is why bans and heavy fines are often not imposed. The politicians cannot afford to render the farmers unappeased and lose out on a major vote share. Meanwhile, farmers continue to enjoy free electricity and heavy subsidies on paddy fertilizers.
So, what are the solutions to this problem? One, farmers can be introduced with the use of a ‘waste decomposer’ solution which is concocted with effective microorganisms that expedite in- situ decomposition of the stubble. Two, the use of the ‘happy seeder’ can be promoted among the farmers. This is a tractor- mounted machine which cuts and lifts the rice straw, sows wheat into the bare soil and then deposits the residue into the sown area to be used as mulch. But there are grave concerns surrounding the cost and maintenance of the machine which need to be reckoned with.
Three, the residue can be turned into biodegradable cutlery. Kriya labs, which are an IIT- Delhi start-up has developed a machine that can convert the rice residue into pulp which can further be moulded to produce biodegradable cutlery. Kriya labs claim that they can generate 4-5 tonnes of rice pulp in a day, with residue generated by 800 acres of land every harvest season.
It is a well- known fact that stubble burning, especially in Punjab followed by Haryana, is a major threat for the environment and the health of millions of Indians. Thus, it is high time that alternatives to the practice are told about to the farmers and implemented soon. After all, we cannot carry on with depleting the air quality and rendering our people more vulnerable to health hazards.