Farmers blamed but who is the real culprit?

The presence of visible pollutants triggers a national debate on measures needed to conserve our environment but only for a few weeks, reports Komal Amit Gera

When smog engulfs the National Capital Region of New Delhi during the harvesting season of kharif crops, we all wake up to save the environment. The presence of visible pollutants (though the invisible toxic pollutants remain in the air round the year) triggers a national debate on measures needed to conserve our environment. Ironically, the issue of environmental degradation captures the attention only for a few weeks. Once the smog is moderated, the entire discourse on causes, consequences and remedies to safeguard the environment takes a back seat.

The term ‘Sustainable Development’ has become a fashionable nomenclature used by the experts and policymakers generously. Taking cognizance of the current scenario, this is imperative to bring forth the issue of sustainable development for the survival of all living species, albeit much talk and minimal action has put the planet in a peril.

The technological interventions in human lives, during the past decade has unequivocally put the lifestyles in a fast trajectory. Concurrently, the intrusion of science and technology in personal and social lives of masses in the absence of senitization for impact of material progress on natural endowments has pushed us in a precarious situation.

During the past few weeks, lot of hue and cry has been made on the farm fires emanating from Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh in the wake of harvest of kharif crops and need to clear the farms for rabi crops.

There is a plethora of reports on farmers being penalised for burning of stubble to clear the crop residue in their farms. Though agriculture does play a role in aggravating the smoke in the air but farmers are not educated, empowered and resourceful enough to think of alternatives for stubble management.

In an era of digitisation and proliferation of information technology, the gap between large and small farmers has been widening. With the changing social milieu, agriculture, specially for the marginal and small farmers has become a herculean task. The urban India looks at the iisue of stubble burning, only at a macro level. By doing so, unfortunately, we are looking at only the tip of the iceberg.  Even after 72 years of independence, we have failed to fix the reasons which are ailing our agriculture sector. The marginal and small farmers in India (who own less than 2 hectare of land) account for approximately 85 percent of all farmers in India, but at the same time own just 45 per cent of crop area. An analysis of the economic well being of this category of  farmers reveals that it is difficult to organise even two square meals for a family of four with such a small landholding size.

The Government of India has earmarked funds to the tune of Rs 1152 cr to provide agro-machine and farm equipment to manage the stubble in an eco-friendly manner. But those planning at the top ignore the fact that existence of hierarchy in the villages plays a roadblock in the implementation. For any kind of government aid and support, the marginal and small small cultivators remain on the periphery. They are the last one to avail such facility. The lack of information makes them vulnerable to bad decision making and instead of waiting for the assistance from agriculture department, they clear the field in a hurry, many times by burning the residue, oblivious of the fact that this causes more damage to their own health than to the environment.

Noted agriculture scientist, Prof. M.S.Swaminathan has recommended to add economic value to the stubble as this will not only curtail the environmental distress but also revive the income of the poor farmers. Myanmar is taking advantage of the scientific collaboration with MSSRF (M S Swaminathan Research Foundation) Chennai in fruitfully utilizing the agri waste. As a part of the Indo-Mynmar Friendship project, funded by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Mynmar has put up a Rice Bio Park in technical collaboration with MSSRF, Chennai.

According to NASA Earth Observatory, India burns approximately 80 lakh tonne of stubble every year. We really need to introspect the reason for such mismanagement of resources. While we pay huge amounts in the name of concessions and waivers to bailout the farmers, why don’t we invest in the available technologies to safeguard the environment and improve the income of languishing farming sector?

Most of the farmers are unaware of the income potential of the bio-mass and probably it is out of sheer ignorance that instead of earning an extra buck by selling the stubble they end up paying price in terms of penalty for burning the stubble.

Talking to Tehelka, Nambi Appadurai, Director, (Climate Resilence Practice) World Resources Institute (WRI India) told that with the help of new innovative technologies, the rich biomass can be converted into many products like cardboard, animal feed, packing material and of course, fuel for power generation.

He added that National Policy on Crop Residue Management 2014-15 has not been effectively implemented. We need to work in the direction of spreading awareness among farmers about the policies framed for their benefits.

Though 4th generation technology solutions are available but in case of bio mass the lack of uniformity in the distribution of biomass and logistics play a crucial role. A good monitoring system is required for the success of applying technology in adding economic cost to the crop residue.

The states of Punjab and Haryana have been making efforts to incorporate private players to consume biomass for power generation. But there has been a mixed outcome. The high cost of collection of biomass from the farm-gate, transportation and storage undermined the profitability for some of the entities.

The sources in Haryana government apprised that the cost of biomass for a farmer is about Rs 300 an acre. There is no dedicated market for sale and purchase of bio-mass. So farmers find it difficult to dispose off. Out of about 70 lakh tonne of bio mass, only 5 lakh tonne is utilized, rest is the burden on farmers. The large farmers can afford the machines but those who have limited means resort to burning. The government for instance, provides machine for wheat sowing ‘Happy Seeders’ at concession but that needs a tractor with higher horse power and this makes the benefit useless for the small landholders. The lacunae in policy implementation has made many targeted solutions a grain on exchequer.

Use of state-of-the-art technology is a must to make bio mass based power generation viable, says S P S Bakshi, plant head for Haryana at Sukhbir Agro Energy Limited. He told that they were using Denmark patented technology which has higher fixed cost but is profitable in the long run.  The company is running an 18 Mw biomass based power generation plant in district Ferozpur in Punjab, another of similar capacity is under test-run in Punjab. Two projects of 15 Mw each are underway in Haryana.

Farmers earn about Rs 1.30 per kilogram by selling the biomass, he added.

It is high time we contemplate over the sustainability of giving cash rewards to farmers for not nor burning stubble and subsidies on machinery for crop residue management. When our warehouses are overflowing with grains procured for food distribution and we the mulling of direct benefit transfer instead of food subsidy for PDS (Public Distribution System), shall we not spend the funds on evolving market for grains other than wheat and rice? This will not only save the smoke but also the depleting underground water table and deteriorating soil health, for which again, government spends large amount of funds.