Air pollution: 'We are helpless', say Punjab farmers on stubble burning

Despite the ban on stubble-burning that is choking Delhi and other areas in northern India, farm fires continue around this Punjab village, just 20 km from the state capital Chandigarh.

We are helpless, says a farmer, citing the cost of equipment meant to tackle crop residue without burning it. The 35-year-old did not wish to be named, fearing action by enforcement agencies against the practice in Punjab and Haryana that is seen as a major cause of the spike in pollution levels in Delhi and the National Capital Region.

The farmer, who cultivates four acres of land he has taken on contract, said he cannot afford any delay in getting his fields clear of stubble from the previous crop before sowing the next one. If we do not burn the residue, wheat sowing will be delayed and that will ultimately affect the yield, he said.

He said buying specialised equipment like Happy Seeder and other machines described as paddy straw chopper, super straw management system or rotavators is not economically viable for a small farmer like him. Happy Seeder costs about Rs 1.50 lakh and requires a 65 horsepower tractor. Together, they will cost him an unaffordable Rs 8 lakh, he said. Such equipment should be rented out by cooperative societies, he added.

Happy Seeder is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts paddy straw, sows wheat, and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch.

Mehar Singh Theri, a leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Sidhupur), demanded Rs 200 per quintal as government bonus on paddy for pollution-free management of stubble. Otherwise farmers will not stop burning crop residue, he said, accusing the Punjab government of harassing farmers with penalties.

He alleged that some empanelled suppliers had inflated the prices of recommended equipment for paddy straw management. Theri claimed that the super straw management system which is used with combine harvester is sold at Rs 1.05 lakh by suppliers on the government panel, but can be bought for Rs 75,000 in the market.

"The government should give us subsidy on machinery which we buy from other than the empanelled suppliers, he said.

The BKU leader also had doubts over the use of machinery like Happy Seeder. The constant use of Happy Seeder will bring down the wheat crop yield, and this has been witnessed in fields here, he said, a claim trashed by the state government's agriculture department.

A Gharuan farmer claimed he has seen wheat yield drop by 10 quintals per acre with its use last year. But Punjab Agriculture department officials accuse some farm union leaders of misleading small farmers. We have been giving a subsidy of 50 per cent to individual farmers and 80 per cent to cooperative societies for buying farm machines, an official said.

Officials said if stubble is disposed of with the recommended machinery, the soil's fertility actually increases. The state's wheat yield would go up by one million tonnes per season if the practice is universally adopted, they claim.

Officials said about 20,000 pieces of farm equipment have been supplied to Punjab farmers this year under a centrally sponsored scheme to promote mechanisation. Last year, 28,000 machines were given out. According to official data, Punjab has witnessed over 22,000 incidents of stubble burning so far this year.

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