Want to stamp out farm fires? Higher MSP for alternative crops may be the way

Want to stamp out farm fires? Higher MSP for alternative crops may be the way

An immediate solution could come in the form of assured MSPs for basmati or organic varieties of rice such as PR126, Pusa Basmati-1509, Pusa Basmati-1692, instead of the current widely used PUSA-44 variety, farm expert Indra Shekhar Singh says.

While farmers may be open to switching their crops, experts point out that such a big policy change will need time to be implemented.

In early November, fields of paddy in Punjab’s Bathinda district have ripened, giving them a golden-brown shade, ready to be harvested. Harvinder Singh (48), a resident of Govindpura village in the district who planted it on his 2.5 acres of land, is ready to reap his most profitable crop.

“Paddy is the crop with the highest profit margin, of about Rs 40,000 per acre. If all goes well, we can easily harvest about 30-32 quintals of paddy per acre against, say, wheat, which gives us about 22 quintals at best,” he said.

Singh, like almost all others in his village, plans on burning the stubble or parali at sundown, after he is done harvesting the crop.

The turbaned men in the fields have been grappling with this issue of the crop remnant for years. After paddy is harvested in mid- and late October, the fields are left with a stubble of stalks about two feet high. Because the sowing cycle for wheat ends by mid-November, farmers have very little time to prepare their fields and hence resort to setting fire to the stubble, and then clear the residue.

“It is the easiest and quickest way. I sowed my paddy on June 19 and it took a little longer for it to ripen this time. I must sow wheat before mid-November for it to grow to its optimum requirement,” Singh said.

Even though the villagers are well aware of the harmful effects of stubble burning, they see no other option.

“Stubble can be taken out in two ways, by manually pulling it out of the soil or by machines which we cannot afford,” Govindpura village sarpanch Namtesh Singh told Moneycontrol.

A stubble shaver machine costs about Rs 1.5 lakh. This machine has to be used along with a tractor which itself costs about Rs 10 lakh. “A farmer, on average, has only about 2 acres of land to his name. They can neither afford the machines nor have the motivation for it. It is too much work when compared to simply burning the residue,” the sarpanch said.

Why the focus?

The issue of stubble burning has been a cause of concern further afield, with residents of Delhi and its neighbourhood, for instance, struggling to breathe as heavy air pollution engulfs the city between October and January. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the health impact of the city’s air quality has remained ‘severe’ since November 1 this year.

Smoke-fall from farm stubble fires, meteorological factors assisting transportation of the smoke to Delhi-NCR along with high local pollution have been identified as the root of the problem by Avikal Somvanshi, head of Urban Lab, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), while releasing its analysis report of Delhi’s air pollution earlier this week.

The Supreme Court in a hearing on November 7 came down heavily on the neighbouring states of Delhi, ordering them to take immediate action against stubble burning, with Punjab largely bearing the brunt of the court’s ire, as the state is said to be the biggest source of pollution through stubble burning.

The Punjab government in response said that crop burning may reduce if paddy cultivation is slowly phased out in the state by reducing incentives for the crop.

Are farmers open to it?

Both farmers as well as farm experts believe that an option to phase out paddy growth from Punjab is possible, but only if two conditions are met—similar profit margins on an alternative crop and time for the decision to be acted upon.

“Punjab is traditionally not a rice-producing state. However, our fathers and grandfathers began cultivating paddy during the Green Revolution following the government’s request,” Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmers’ leader in Punjab’s Bathinda, told Moneycontrol.

According to him, while the concept of diversification is not wrong, the government needs to do much more to encourage it. “An all-out ban would be a knee-jerk reaction unlikely to work in favour of the government. All stakeholders need to be brought into the conversation,” he said.

The prime problem in replacing the crop, he pointed out, is the fact that paddy gives the biggest profit margin. “Despite higher MSP (minimum support price) on pulses, millets and maize, it is paddy that is most profitable and is procured by the government in entirety. If the same profit margins are met on any other crop with assured market prices, farmers will shift their patterns,” he said.

Farmers of the state too realise that paddy cropping is not feasible anymore.

“Every time paddy is sown, the field needs to be flooded. This consumes too much water. It is not viable but we have no other option. If the government gives us an alternative which earns us the same amount of money, we will be happy to make the switch,” said Gajjar Singh (48), a resident of Bhedpura village in Patiala district.

While farmers may be open to switching their crops, experts point out that such a big policy change will need time to be implemented.

“Even diversification will take time and cannot be done by the next cycle. Farmers will need a few years and they will need guarantees and assurances by people they trust,” said Indra Shekhar Singh, an independent agri-policy analyst and former director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India.

Speaking of a solution, Shekhar added that one possible solution is to have assured MSP for basmati or organic production instead of the current widely used PUSA-44 variety of rice.

While the PUSA-44 variety takes about 155 days to mature, short-duration varieties such as PR126, Pusa Basmati-1509 and Pusa Basmati-1692, mature in 120 days and could be at least a stop-gap measure as they give more time for crop-residue management.

To this end, the apex court too has asked Punjab to look into the provisions of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009, and commented that it could be a contributing factor to pollution.

The act, which was brought in to conserve groundwater in the state, mandates a delay in transplanting paddy to after June 10, to prevent water from evaporating. The court said that it is owing to this act that farmers get a very small window to harvest paddy and prepare the soil for the wheat crop. To clear the soil in time, farmers resort to stubble burning.

Noting that farmers are burning stubble purely for economic reasons, the Punjab government has purchased expensive machinery and is ready to offer them at a subsidised rate to farmers, but claims farmers are unwilling to buy.

These machines were subsidised by the central government from 2018 onwards under the scheme called Promotion of Agricultural Mechanisation for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi. This offers a subsidy of 50 percent for various crop residue machines, such as the super straw management system and the happy seeder. Punjab’s advocate general has thus suggested that the Punjab and Delhi governments jointly share 50 percent of the cost of these machines, while the central government could bear the rest, thereby providing the machines free of cost to farmers.

“We do believe that when the Centre provides so many other subsidies, there is no reason why this cost should not be borne,” the court said.


Content Source – Want to stamp out farm fires? Higher MSP for alternative crops may be the way (moneycontrol.com)

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