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Capital Chokehold | ‘How Can We Set Fire to Field That Feeds Us?’ In Punjab, Some Are Doing Their Bit for Clean Air


As winter approaches, Delhi is bracing itself for plummeting air quality, made worse by stubble burning in neighbouring states. Besides being a health and environmental hazard, the issue is also a political one with the Aam Aadmi Party in power in both Delhi and Punjab. In this series, News18 studies the situation on ground, explores solutions with experts and attempts to answer if Delhiites will breathe easy this season.

Gurjant Singh, a farmer from Kalajhar village in Sangrur, has seen most farmers from his village setting fire to the paddy stubble (paraali) after harvesting every year. However, he decided to stick to what he had chosen years ago.

“How can we set fire to the field which gives us food?” asked Singh, who sows paddy over nearly 18 acres of land every year along with his brother but has not resorted to stubble burning for years now. “Paraali se khaad ban jaata hai (The left over straw can become manure for the soil).”

SUBSIDISED MACHINES

While a majority of farmers continue to face criticism for setting fire to their harvested fields, which adds to the deadly smog that envelops the National Capital Region every winter, there are a few who have already switched to eco-friendlier ways of managing stubble.

“Initially, we would leave the harvested field for 15 days to let the straw decompose on its own – after churning the soil using rotavator. But we have now shifted to converting the straw into small compact bales, which are sold to factories for Rs 250 per quintal for making biofuels or as raw material for construction products,” says Singh, who also works in the state’s water supply department.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Punjab government has been promoting the use of baler machines, even providing subsidy to those who want to purchase it. Though there are over thousands of applications from farmers seeking subsidy, the challenges lie in execution as most farmers complain that bales once formed aren’t collected on time and end up delaying harvesting even further.

Another factor that helps farmers like Singh is that they use a short duration Basmati rice variety, which matures much earlier than regular paddy, has higher yield, and gives him enough time to sow potato. This year too, Singh was among the earliest to harvest his fields by September 15 and sow the next crop within a week before the heavy spell of rains.

A few kilometers away, 45-year-old Gurjinder Singh from Channo village in Sangrur made the most of the opportunity and purchased two heavy machines that are mounted on tractors and help in in-situ management of the crop residue. “Around seven of us from the same village got together and bought the machinery at 80 per cent subsidy under an NGT scheme, which we have been using since 2019,” he adds.

For Singh, a former employee of PepsiCo’s research and division wing, it was always a matter of choice. “Once you understand how toxic this air pollution can be, you do not want to do anything that makes it worse for my family and other people. Moreover, if I can convert it into manure, which enriches the soil, then why burn it?” said Singh who sows paddy and then potato in over 20 acres of land in Sangrur.

WAIT FOR COMPENSATION

While there is a huge number of applications pending for availing subsidy on machines for stubble management, farmers have also been demanding compensation of at least Rs 2,500 per acre for not burning stubble.

Unlike the bigger farmers, who own more than 15-20 acres of land, it is the smaller farmers owning less than five acres of land who are unable to bear the additional cost of ex-situ/in-situ stubble management. The request, however, was turned down by the Punjab government after the Centre’s refusal to share a part of the package.

As part of the proposal, an amount of Rs 2,500 per acre was to be given to paddy growers for not burning stubble, of which Centre’s share was Rs 1,500 per acre while Rs 1,000 per acre was to be borne by AAP-led Punjab and Delhi governments.

As winter sets in, the crop fires raging across the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh begin to impact the air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR). The situation is made worse by the meteorological conditions, which ensures the prevailing particular matter stays in the air for longer durations, turning Delhi into a gas chamber. ​

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