In today's Finshots, we tell you why farmers choose stubble burning despite having other alternatives.

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Stubble burning! Every winter as Delhi begins to choke, stubble burning becomes a topic of national interest. The conversation unfolds in many ways but rarely do we see people discuss the root cause.

Now, the Supreme Court recently suggested disincentivising farmers who follow this practice. It wants to punish them by refusing a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their crops. This simply means that the government won't buy such farm produce at an agreed fair price, even if it means losses for these farmers. So we thought we could do a quick primer – a simplified explanation of stubble burning, the alternatives we’ve considered so far and why it’s such a difficult problem to solve.

Let’s start from the top.

At the end of the Kharif season (harvesting season) in October, farmers collect their produce and sell it in Mandis. Farmers in North India (mostly Punjab) grow rice. And rice has a problem. Once farmers harvest the grain, they leave behind non-edible parts like the stem, leaves and roots in their fields. These are collectively called stubble.

And stubble can be tall. As tall as 1.5-2 ft. This is because farmers use mechanised harvesters. These machines cut the crop at a certain height above the ground leaving behind a lot of residue. With a sickle and manual labour, you could cut closer to the crop. However, that is expensive and time-consuming, especially considering farmers in Punjab have large land holdings. So they use harvesters that leave behind a lot of stubble.

And this begets another problem. Farmers can’t grow the next crop (usually wheat) unless they get rid of the stubble first. And the easiest way to get rid of the problem is to burn it.

Light a matchstick and burn it all.

But wait, everybody knows burning stubble is a problem. So why do farmers continue doing it?

If you ask the farmers in Punjab, they’ll tell you that they're doing it out of compulsion. They harvest the rice in October and they have to ready the fields by early November. If they miss this window, the next crop might disappoint. Low yields translate to lower earnings. So the farmers are in a rush to clear out the fields as soon as possible. And the quickest way to clear out the stubble is to burn it.

Light a matchstick and burn it all.

Okay, so now, we’ve figured out what seems to be the issue. It’s the window – the short turnaround time between harvesting the grain and planting the new crop. So how do we increase it?

One way to do this is to harvest the Kharif crop early. If you did it in early October as opposed to doing it in late October, maybe you can get more time to deal with the stubble. After all, farmers only begin planting wheat in November. So maybe the stubble could decompose naturally in this time. And maybe the stubble burning will stop.

And even if the burning doesn't stop entirely, maybe the favourable winds will make things better. If you can harvest the crop before the end of the Monsoon, the strong winds could clear the air. If you wait till late October, then the slower winds blowing from the northwest will begin carrying the pollutants to Delhi.

So all facts point in one direction. We need to harvest the crop in early October.

Great, let’s do that!

However, that begets another challenge. You can’t simply harvest a crop before it’s ready. You have to give it time. Unless you figure out a way to get the crops to mature early.

One proposed alternative is DSR or Direct Seeded Rice. It's a method of rice cultivation that involves sowing seeds directly into the field, rather than the traditional method of transplanting rice seedlings.

In the traditional method, young rice plants are grown separately in nurseries and then transplanted into flooded fields. This transplanting business takes time. However, with DSR, you sow seeds directly into the field without the need for transplanting and the crops mature 10-15 days early. This could give enough time for farmers to deal with the stubble.

So why haven’t we been doing this?

Well, despite the government offering monetary benefits to farmers using DSR, there hasn’t been a significant uptake in adoption because of weeds. No, not that weed. Like weeds – unwanted plants that grow alongside your crop. In the absence of flooded fields, these plants can grow unabated and farmers are forced to spend more on labour. Also, this DSR business can be technical and yields can vary considerably unless you have significant expertise. But perhaps the biggest problem is the promise of early maturity. According to a report by the Scroll, it seems the crops didn’t mature 10-15 days early. They matured only 5 days early – not nearly enough time to have an impact on their decision to burn the stubble.

Okay then... New planting techniques haven’t been working.

But what about new seeds? What if we had a variety of rice that matured early? That could once again give farmers more time to deal with stubble right?

Yes. We do have short-duration varieties of rice. However, farmers haven’t exactly embraced these seeds fully since their yields haven’t been great and they don’t fetch a Minimum Support Price. So they continue to plant rice that sometimes takes 150 odd days to mature.

But wait, if this problem is so endemic and deep-rooted, then how come the “stubble burning” problem wasn’t this bad, say 15 years ago? How come it’s only becoming an issue now?

Well, that’s something, the Economic Survey looked at last year. 15 years ago, farmers in Punjab were sowing paddy in nurseries during April and then transplanting them into flooded fields in May. This way they could harvest the rice in early October. More time for decomposition. Favourable winds. Everything works well.

But then the Punjab government noticed something. Rice is a water-intensive crop and irrigating the fields continuously during April and May (summers) had a massive impact on the region’s groundwater supply. So to prevent indiscriminate use of groundwater, the Punjab government forced farmers to sow rice in nurseries only after May 10th and transplant them after June 10th. And suddenly, the harvest season was pushed back to late October.

Should the government rethink the ban? Maybe. But we now know there’s nothing we can do about the window (between harvesting in late October and planting a new crop in early November). It’s likely to stay the same.

So we need to look at other solutions.

What about machines that can cut the stalk and spread them evenly on the field? Surely you have mechanised solutions for this no? And if you paired them with a decomposer (something that could break down the stubble organically), then you could kill two birds with one stone.

This is what the government recommends right now. In fact, they even subsidise the machinery and equipment needed to do all this. However, despite the massive push, adoption hasn’t been great, simply because the costs are still pretty high. Even if the machines were subsidised, fuel isn’t. And the tractors that pull these machines can also cost a pretty penny. The decomposers meanwhile, haven’t been working as well as the farmers hoped and the stubble still takes a long time to break down.

Also, there is another problem.

Pink bollworm.

These pests breed within the stalk and affect the next crop. This eats into farmer earnings. So they’d much rather prefer burning stubble (and the bollworm) as opposed to dispersing them.

This may lead some to believe that dispersing the stubble is the problem. What if we got around it, by simply transporting the stubble somewhere else and using it as fuel? That could be a win-win no? This is something governments in Punjab and Haryana have been trying to do with varying degrees of success. There are even dedicated companies promising to collect the stubble and move it elsewhere.

However, if farmers can’t dispatch the stubble before they begin sowing next season, they have to deal with rats, pests and space constraints – all of which can be expensive for somebody barely trying to make ends meet.

So what is the solution, you ask?

Well, perhaps an enduring solution is to figure out a way for farmers to move away from rice and wheat entirely.

North Indian states like Punjab and Haryana were never known to be part of India’s rice belt before the Green Revolution. They were rather popular for growing corn. But then, farmers collectively shifted to growing rice as it was simply more profitable. There were massive subsidies involved and a Minimum Support Price.

But since we overproduce rice and wheat right now, maybe it's time for the government to start incentivising the production of other crops that don’t produce as much stubble. Because otherwise, we will keep seeing this problem crop up time and time again every winter. And disincentivising farmers by refusing them an MSP may not be the best way to go about it.

Until then…

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