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  • Writer's pictureZia Haq

India tries Uber-like model to curb polluting farm fires

Every winter, fires to clear paddy straw cast deadly pollution and smog over Delhi

Incomplete, cheap mechanisation is one of the main reasons why farmers need to clear left-over paddy straw by burning them, leaving deadly pollution and smog in entire northern India in its wake.

Zia Haq

New Delhi: An Uber-like business model, which allows cultivators to rent subsidised harvest equipment on an android app, is helping curtail polluting fires set by farmers to clear their fields of harvested paddy, official data shows.

Northern India is bracing for another season of air pollution this month, caused by agricultural fires in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and rural Delhi. In 2016, thick smog covered the capital from smoke blown in from these states. Air quality remained hazardous for weeks.

Authorities say the incidence of farm fires came down 41% in 2018 over 2016 because of cheaper, order-on-app farm equipment to deal with leftover straw on the back of a Rs 1151.80-crore subsidy programme launched by the Union government in 2018.

On September 6, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal claimed that air pollution in the capital came down a quarter per cent over four years due to multiple measures. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said on October 7 that the farm-equipment subsidy will result in cleaner air this year.

Rising winter air pollution across northern India owing to farm fires prompted the Union government to introduce this subsidy on farm equipment that eliminates stubble burning.

The custom hiring centres, usually operated by rural entrepreneurs, are at the heart of the model that rents out farm machinery to farmers, aided by a state-developed app farmers are using to hire these tools. To be sure, the problem of farm fires still persists and the practice hasn’t stopped altogether.

Burning of paddy stubble is a relatively recent phenomenon in Punjab and Haryana. Farmers have increasingly adopted efficient machines called combine harvesters that cut the grainy part of paddy and not the plant itself, prompting farmers to burn the leftover straw. It works out cheaper than employing costly labour to remove them.

The solution is rather simple. A fixture called straw management system, a machine attached to the harvester, manages the straw without the need for cultivators to burn it. Another machine called the “happy seeder” enables wheat, the next crop, to be sown on a bed of straw. Farmers tend to skip using these equipment because they entail higher costs.

Over 4,500 villages in Haryana and Punjab have been declared “zero stubble burning villages”, according to Trilochan Mohapatra, the secretary of the department of agricultural research and education under the Union farm ministry, who cited satellite data to support his claim.

The National Green Tribunal, in its order passed on December 10, 2015, banned straw burning in Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

“Fines on farmers are hard to implement, but cheaper rentals of farm machinery has been more effective (at curbing stubble burning),” an official said on condition of anonymity. On September 18, the Punjab and Haryana high court stayed fines imposed on farmers for setting fires to clear paddy residue. Last year, Punjab fixed Rs 2,500 as penalty for every instance of stubble burning.

The subsidy lowers the cost of farm machines rural entrepreneurs buy, who then pass on the discount to farmers renting these machines. For instance, in Punjab, the scheme grants 80% subsidy on an investment of ₹10 lakh.

“The subsidy on farm residue management tools has increased access of these machines for farmers by lowering hiring costs,” said Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Punjab’s agriculture commissioner.

A structural issue is that Punjab has more tractors than needed, but not enough equipment for environmentally-sound harvesting. Banks tend to finance more “stand-alone equipment” leading to “tractorisation”, according to a 2016 report, “Farm Mechanization in India: The Custom Hiring Perspective”.

For Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and UP, the subsidy to curb fires stood at ₹1,151 crore, latest data showed.

In 2018-19, Punjab got ₹167 crore, up 25% over 2017-18. Haryana got ₹61.72 crore, a rise of 17% from the previous year, while UP got ₹28.60 crore. For 2019-20, Punjab, Haryana, UP have been allocated ₹269 crore, ₹175 crore and ₹97 crore respectively, the data revealed.

“How soon we eliminate stubble burning will depends on the scale and nature of farm mechanisation. Adoption of low-cost machines is needed at both the ends, that is sowing and harvest,” said Dr Amrender Bhullar, a former professor of Punjab Agricultural University.

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