Chandigarh: More than 10 lakh hectares of agricultural land were set aflame in Punjab this harvest season, as farmers rushed to dispose of millions of tonnes of paddy straw before they had to sow their next crop.
Unlike wheat straw, paddy stubble cannot be used as fodder because it is high in silica. And as farmers have less than 25 days after the paddy harvest to prepare their fields to sow wheat, they resort to burning this residue.
Almost 2 crore metric tonnes of paddy stubble is produced during the harvest in October-November each year. In 2020, the total area under paddy cultivation in Punjab was 31.49 lakh hectares.
This season, 67,165 stubble fires had been reported as of 15 November, compared to nearly 74,000 over the same period last year. “The total burnt area this season (till 10 November) has also decreased from 15.44 lakh hectares last year to 10.34 lakh hectares,” said Krunesh Garg, member secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board.
The governments of India and Punjab have spent crores in the past few years to contain farm fires, but all efforts have met with only marginal success. ThePrint explains why.
The various methods deployed for the management of paddy straw can broadly be divided into ex-situ and in-situ. Ex-situ measures make use of the straw outside the field, whereas in-situ methods aim to manage the straw within the field itself.
1) Ex-situ: biomass power plants
Punjab started setting up biomass power plants in 2005, with the aim of using paddy straw to generate power. But only 11 such plants have been set up in the 16 years since. These produce just 100 megawatts (MW) of power and are barely able to consume 10 lakh tonnes of paddy straw annually.
“Biomass power plants are producing expensive power that distribution companies are not ready to purchase. Hence, there is no attraction to set up more projects.” said Navjot Singh Randhawa, CEO, Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA). “Last year, we wrote to the Centre asking it to provide a viability gap fund at the rate of Rs 5 crore per MW to such projects in order to encourage them. But there has been no response,” he adds.
“The process of producing green energy is always more expensive. In the case of paddy straw, additional costs are incurred in procuring, transportation and storage,” said Pawanpreet Singh, who heads the Biomass Power Plants Association, Punjab. “The most effective solution lies in the setting up of more power plants, but the entire effort of the government has been on selling machinery to farmers to manage paddy residue. The government should commission a study to assess the impact of setting up biomass power plants in reducing farm fires in their vicinity.”
Paddy straw is also converted into briquettes and pellets, which can be used as fuel in industrial boilers and brick kilns.
Punjab has two paddy straw briquette plants. Combined, they have a production capacity of 124 tonnes per day (TPD) and consume just 44,000 metric tonnes of paddy straw.
“The scope for setting up paddy straw briquette and pellet units is huge. The challenge is to procure the straw from the fields during the tiny window of 20 days following the harvest. Unlike baled straw, pellets are compact, easy to store and have a longer shelf life,” said Pritpal Singh, senior engineer with the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology.
PEDA and the Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd (PSPCL) have issued tenders for setting up two 100-TPD paddy straw pelletisation torrefied plants. “These will be set up at our thermal plants in Bathinda and Ropar, and the pellets produced will be co-fired with coal,” said A. Venuprasad, additional chief secretary and chairman-cum-Managing Director, PSPCL.
Compressed gas and ethanol
Garg added that Punjab was setting up 22 compressed biomass gas projects with a total capacity of 229.35 TPD, which will consume 8 lakh metric tonnes of straw. The first of these is likely to be commissioned next month, while two more are under construction.
HPCL is also setting up a second-generation bioethanol plant with the capacity to produce 100 kilolitres of ethanol per day in Bathinda, but it’s running behind schedule. This project was to use almost 2 lakh tonnes of paddy straw.
In August, the Punjab government offered fiscal incentives worth Rs 25 crore, capped at Rs 50 lakh per unit, to install paddy-straw-fired boilers. New boilers would also be required to use paddy straw as fuel.
Only six of the 4,000 boilers in Punjab currently use paddy straw as fuel, consuming about 5 lakh tonnes annually.
“Many more industries will start using rice straw as fuel because in the long run it proves cheaper. But initially, the government should handhold these units. A Rs 50-lakh incentive is peanuts,” said Tejinder Singh, marketing head, Cheema Boilers.
“The initial cost of using paddy straw as fuel is greater because it entails changes in the design of the boilers and the year-long storage of straw bales. Plus, there is the fear of the stored paddy straw catching fire because it is highly combustible,” he added.
Taking all ex-situ measures together, the total amount of paddy straw they use is a little over 15 lakh tonnes — just 0.3 per cent of the amount generated in Punjab.
B.S. Sidhu, member secretary, Punjab State Farmers Commission, said that for large-scale ex-situ use, the collection, transportation and storage of millions of tonnes of residue is not possible. “Storing 10 lakh tonnes of paddy straw will need about 2,500 hectares. Plus, removal of stubble leads to the depletion of essential plant nutrients and soil organic matter. Only on-farm, i.e. in-situ, management methods are sustainable, profitable and practical.”
The most common in-situ methods are to cut the straw and spread it in the field (mulching) or push it down into the soil (incorporation) using specialised equipment. Another approach is to treat it biochemically so that it decomposes where it is.
The main focus of the government has been to sell the machines needed to manage paddy stubble to farmers at subsidised rates.
The Government of India provides the entire subsidy amount, and since the launch of the scheme in 2018, Punjab has spent Rs 1,100 crore. An individual farmer receives a 50 per cent subsidy on the total cost of the crop residue management (CRM) equipment, while a village cooperative society or a group of farmers gets 80 per cent.
“More than 86,000 CRM machines have been sold to farmers thus far. Potentially, these machines should facilitate the management of 1 crore tonnes of paddy straw and 14 lakh hectares of cultivated land,” says Jagdish Singh, joint director, agriculture, Punjab.
But purchasing these machines isn’t the first choice for farmers. “CRM machinery is costly despite the subsidy. Depending on the quality of soil and which crop has to be grown (wheat or vegetables), the additional cost is Rs. 1,800 to Rs. 3,400 per acre. Hence, giving a cash incentive to farmers apart from this subsidy is essential,” said Sidhu.
Farmers generally use a combine harvester, which they rent, to harvest a paddy field. The combine leaves loose straw and stubble in the soil. Most of this residue will be burnt to ready the field for the next crop — a one-step operation.
In contrast, if the straw is not to be burnt, the process will require several steps using CRM machines. On average, these machines cost Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakh per farmer. “First, a super straw management system (SMS) is attached to the combine. While harvesting, the SMS chops and spreads the loose straw uniformly across the field. The standing stubs are not processed by the SMS. An SMS costs a little over Rs 1.10 lakh,” said Dr Mahesh Narang, principal extension scientist, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.
“The sowing of wheat is done using the happy seeder or the super seeder, both of which process the paddy straw further,” added Dr Narang. A happy seeder costs Rs 1.6 to Rs 1.7 lakh while a super seeder is priced at Rs 2 lakh to Rs 2.4 lakh.
Farmers said the CRM machines sold by the government were expensive. “An SMS is available in the market for as little as Rs. 35,000. But I paid Rs. 55,000 after a 50 per cent subsidy,” said Sukha Singh, a farmer in Ajnala who bought two SMS machines.
“The machines sold on subsidy are more expensive because these are centrally procured by the government from a limited number of suppliers who claim to offer better after-sales services,” said Sidhu.
To tackle this problem of cost, the government launched custom hiring centres (CHCs) or farm machinery banks, which rent out these machines. But the move met with very little success
“This is because CRM machinery is used only during the paddy harvesting season, which lasts two months. For those running the CHCs, having only these machines is not a profitable business,” said Sidhu.
Farmers added that SMS had also not been used widely this season because of high diesel rates. “A combine guzzles double the diesel when an SMS is attached to it. The cost of renting a combine is Rs. 1,200 per acre, and with an SMS it increases to Rs. 1,500,” said Amrik Singh, a farmer from Verka, Amritsar.
Failed monetary incentive
In 2019, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to incentivise farmers to stop burning paddy. Following this, Punjab decided to give Rs 2,500 per acre to small and marginal farmers who did not burn paddy straw.
This led to Rs 20 crore being distributed to 31,000 farmers in 2019, but nothing more has been paid since. “No payments were made after that as there was no budget. This year, we have been given Rs. 40 crore, but it is yet to be distributed,” said Jaideep Singh, agriculture development officer, Punjab.
“States are already hugely cash crunched. The Government of India should add an incentive amount to the minimum support price for farmers who do not burn paddy straw,” said Punjab finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal.
There are also ongoing attempts to use biochemicals to decompose paddy straw in the fields.
A first-of-its-kind fungal cocktail decomposer developed by Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), and a similar product developed by PAU, were tested for their suitability last year.
Dr. G.S. Kochar, head of the department of microbiology, PAU, said neither decomposer had the desired results. “The time it took to decompose the paddy straw was almost the same as the straw would have taken to do so on its own. So we did not recommend either of the two,” he said, adding that PAU was working on developing better decomposers.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)