Gurpreet calls out to his son Ashpreet, a lean 21-year-old with a stylish hairdo. The father-son duo picks up a blackened iron punjah or harrower, piles a chunk of the mulched straw on it and sets it afire. With the punjah ablaze, they sprint across the 9-acre field in different directions. In a matter of minutes, the entire field is up in flames. A thick blanket of smoke obscures the blue of the sky. With their faces masked, the two inspect their farm’s boundary to make sure the fire doesn’t spread beyond that.
The Singhs’ act, perhaps unknown to them, influences the daily air quality measurement many kilometres away in the capital. The smoke from Jasso Majra blows southwards and affects Delhi’s air quality index reading the following day. And what happened there, in neighbouring Srinagar Puniwal village and almost every nook and corner of agrarian Punjab is a ritual observed annually ever since rice was introduced as a lucrative crop to the first generation of Punjab’s paddy farmers around half a century ago.
Given the circumstances, the desperate calls to end the practice of stubble burning doesn’t look like they will be heeded. “We can neither afford the additional five-six thousand rupee per acre on machines to manage the stubble nor can we delay next crop. With no help from the government, stubble burning is our only option,” said Gurpreet. He explained how the rain in October delayed the rice harvest by two weeks, leaving them very late for sowing the winter kanak (wheat) crop.
In the discussion rooms in Delhi, the farm fires in Punjab are seen as the reason why Delhi chokes air around this time of the year. In the villages of Punjab, a big rice-producing state that goes to the polls next year, the ground reality is far more complex than the narration back in the national capital. The story of stubble burning also is a story of lack of resources, changing climate patterns, high fuel price, lack of trust in the governments and the limited crop options.
At Agaul village in Naba region, Omkar Singh, 74, pointed at an expansive field belonging to his brother near a lavish farmhouse. Omkar claimed his brother suffer financial losses because he chose not to burn the stubble on his 15 acres. “He decided to make hay bales using a baling machine to sell it to a bio-mass plant, but he was only offered around Rs 100 per quintal of the straw,” said Omkar. “Finally, my brother had to pay from his own pocket to get rid of the bales. All the new things don’t work everywhere. New technologies and facilities are yet to reach all places.”
The septuagenarian agreed that the farmers were stuck with paddy because it’s the safest crop and has a fixed support price even when the water table had dropped from 11ft to 112ft in the region due to widespread cultivation of water-dependent rice. He added, “One generally gets 25-30 quintals of rice from an acre. But even that has become uncertain these days due to unpredictable weather. Add to that the cost of farming, with diesel so expensive.”
A first-generation paddy farmer pointed out that rice and wheat are the only crops for which the government provides a fixed minimum support price. Alternatives like cotton, maize, mustard, sugarcane, even Basmati rice, are largely avoided due to fluctuating selling prices. As Gurdarshan Singh, 64, of Jaspal Bangar in Ludhiana, noted, “We could go for an optional crop that could solve the stubble problem. But, over the years a rice monopoly has come into being and the entire system, including the pricing, is now designed to support that.”
A common belief among farmers is that the fires in Punjab cannot affect Delhi’s air. While Omkar dismisses this as a “myth” wondering how the smoke could travel such a distance, 70-year-old Laxman Pal of Srinagar Puniyal blandly stated, “The people of Haryana never complain about this, why just Delhi?”
Believing the issue of stubble burning to be a “politically invented problem” and “a money-making proposition”, some farmers even say it is an invented problem to solve which they invest millions. “We don’t want to burn the stubble, but what else can we do? Machines like Happy Seeder or Super Seeder costs over Rs 2 lakh, the same as a baling contraption,” shrugged Jaswant Singh, 56, a farmer in Srinagar Puniyal. “Only a few villages have cooperatives that own these machines. There is a solution but the government doesn’t want to take it up because slow supply drives money.”
Jaswant also talked about rural godown and local warehouse projects that have been approved but not implemented. He is, therefore, not alone in this lack of trust in the government. The anger against the authorities has only deepened, making stubble management the last priority for the farmers, to some not a priority at all.
“There is shortage of DAP fertiliser, the cost of seed has gone up from Rs 400 per bag last year to Rs 800 this year. The cost of potash has increased too,” said Raisal village resident Gurnaam Singh, 62, who owns 30 acres and suffered losses due to the October rains. “Our margin is very small. At this stage, no one can expect us to manage the stubble. It’s not a priority for me.”
Gurmail Singh, who recently returned home from the protest at Singhu border in Delhi, a resident of the affluent Srinagar Puniyal village, said, “National Green Tribunal had ruled that governments would provide machines like balers and seeders at a nominal cost of Rs 2,500 to farmers owning more than 2.5 acres, at Rs 5,000 to farmers with over five acres and free of cost to smaller farmers. Where are those machines? Why hasn’t the government actually helped us before demanding we change a farming practice that is decades old. They have made hollow promises and this is why we are sitting in protest.”
In 2012, a petition was filed at NGT and in December 2015, it was made illegal to burn stubble. The state governments were given the responsibility of providing farmers with machinery for managing the stubble. Providing such machinery is, however, easier said than done when the area in question is over three million hectares.
Dr Rajbir Singh, director, ICAR-Agricultural Technology Application Research Institute, Ludhiana, claimed that farm fires in Punjab were down 35% since last year. He added that farmers did need technology to manage the stubble, but production hadn’t been good this year while costs had gone up. “Yet, many farmers have given up burning stubble. But, of course, more needs to be done,” the director said. As for ICAR’s bio-decomposers, Rajbir Singh said, “We are still testing it in Punjab.”
According to officials of Confederation of Indian Industry, which is engaged in distributing stubble machinery to the farmer cooperatives, 400 such machines have been distributed for free so far. “Of the machines given to village cooperatives since 2018, 250 have been Happy and Super Seeders,” disclosed Hitesh Goyal, project associate, CII Foundation.
Farmer say this is not enough. “There are over 12,000 villages in Punjab and only a few have strong cooperatives and an adequate number of stubble-management machines,” pointed out Jaswant Singh. “You also have to remember that those machines need fuel that the farmer pays from his pocket.” He added that the solution to the issue of stubble burning was to provide each village with at least two baling machines, two Happy or Super Seeders and two tractors for using these as well as subsidised diesel. “Set up a small ethanol processing plant that uses stubble in each village, as minister Nitin Gadkari had suggested,” Jaswant added. “The government must have the will to do it. Don’t make the farmer the fall guy.”
He was backed by his uncle, Sardar Balwant Singh, a 90-years-old ex-serviceman who is still fit enough to inspect his fields regularly. The nonagenarian too rubbished the idea that harvest remains burning caused pollution. “Back in the 1950s, the farmers were hailed as heroes. Now that they are on protest in Delhi, they are being called names. They are even blaming us for polluting the capital,” the doughty old man said, his baritone voice choking with emotion.
He quickly added, “We don’t hold grudges against anyone. We just want the people in Delhi and in the central government to understand that farming is not in a buoyant condition. It is a matter of survival for us.”