Stubble (Parali/crop residues) burning is a method of removing the residues of the paddy crop from the field to sow wheat in the upcoming season (September-November), right after the withdrawal of the southwest monsoon in India. The straw stubble left after the harvest of the grains is set on fire and this practice is used in areas that use a combined harvesting method.
Stubble burning is commonly practiced in October & November across Northwest India, primarily in the Indo-Gangetic plains of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh to clear the fields for the sowing of rabi crops. However, the practice of burning stubble is quite harmful not only to the crops, but also to our environment, and for us.
Effects Of Burning Stubble
- Leads to air pollution- Burning stubble releases large amounts of toxic pollutants and harmful gases like methane(CH4), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOC), and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the air which may undergo physical and chemical transformations before forming a thick blanket of smog which adversely affects human health. This is the thick smog we generally witness throughout the Delhi-NCR region, prolonged exposure to which may lead to respiratory illness thereby creating a situation of air pollution emergency.
- Lowers soil fertility- Burning of husk in the ground destroys nutrients in the soil, making it less fertile, further hampering the growth of crops. To make their soil fertile and reap a good harvest, farmers again have to use pesticides and fertilizers which cause much harm to the environment.
- Loss of moisture & useful microbes- When stubble is burnt, the heat generated penetrates into the soil leading to loss of moisture and useful microbes.
Why Farmers Choose To Burn Stubble
While the long-term benefits of retaining stubble generally outweigh those of removing stubble, some growers choose to burn stubble for reasons like
- ease of sowing and better establishment of small seeds, such as canola
- less suitable habitat for many crop seedling pests
- managing certain weeds, particularly herbicide-resistant weed populations
- a less costly and highly convenient way to remove stubble and control weeds
- reduced reliance on agricultural chemicals
- better weed control due to a more even distribution of herbicides and effective incorporation of pre-emergent herbicides
- less nitrogen tie-up (immobilization)
- less frost damage to crops (in some cases)
- less inoculum for certain crop diseases (if stubble is completely removed)
Additionally, state governments often make promises to curb stubble burning. Still, nothing substantial is ever done as the period between harvesting the first crop and sowing the next is too short.
As a result, the method of stubble farming is sought after, as it is cheaper and faster for the farmers, helping them clear the land in time for the next cycle despite being detrimental to human life, the environment, and for agriculture.
Alternatives To Stubble Burning
The problem of stubble burning can be avoided if we take the help of solutions like:-
- Bio Enzyme-PUSA: A concentrated powder of natural fungi that is a radical solution devised by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute for decomposing stubble. When sprayed, it decomposes stubble in 20-25 days and turns it into manure thereby improving the soil quality.
- Grassroots participation with the public-private partnership: Active and deep public-private partnerships where resources and solutions are deployed effectively would benefit society.
- Technology Enabled Smart Revolution: A Smart Revolution can help counter the ramifications of stubble burning. If done well, with the help of digitization and technology, air and soil would be healthier, water tables would be replenished and farmers would earn more.
- In-situ treatment, Ex-situ treatment of stubble:
➢ For in-situ management (eg. managing crop residue by zero-tiller machines and the use of bio-decomposers), stubble can be mixed back into the soil with the help of equipment and machines.
➢ For ex-situ management(eg. Use of rice straw as cattle fodder), more companies should be encouraged to collect stubble for their use.
- Alternative uses: To avoid the menace of stubble burning, stubble can be put to different uses like cattle feed, compost manure, biomass energy, roofing in rural areas, packaging materials, mushroom cultivation, fuel, paper, bio-ethanol, and industrial production.
This way farmers could ensure bulk production of commodities like Wheat, Rice, Pulses, etc. without creating issues for themselves and for the environment.
Challenges of Alternative Methods
Although the alternatives look good on paper, below mentioned problems highlight the hurdles in the way of implementation of alternative methods.
- Lack of Options: Despite being well aware of the ill effects of stubble burning, the process continues to be the way farmers operate regarding post-harvest waste management. Closer-to-ground interaction reveals that the farmers do not have much choice. For years, the governments of Punjab and Haryana have been trying to make farmers adopt machines such as the happy seeder. However, the schemes have been poorly formulated since the farmers find it difficult to invest in expensive machines.
- Lack of Capacity: In the case of Punjab, farmers harvest almost 80% of the rice crop using combine harvesters which leave behind stubble stalks of around 15 cm in height. In the total rice produced, the stubble generated is 1.5 times the grain.
- Inviable: Stubble is difficult to remove or incorporate into the soil through manual labor. As most farmers cannot afford machines, alternative methods are not viable for an average farmer.
- Dispersed and fragmented markets: Markets for other methods of paddy residue management are fragmented making things difficult for farmers.
- Lack of Stubble Management Infrastructure: Owing to the lack of infrastructure for waste management, farmers set almost 15.4 million metric tons (out of the 19.7 MMT) on fire in open fields (Punjab government 2017).
Attitudes Toward Burning Stubble Around The World
Despite being a serious threat to the soil, humans, and the environment, there have been differences in attitudes towards this issue, by different countries around the world.
- Stubble burning has been effectively prohibited since 1993 in the United Kingdom. A perceived increase in blackgrass, particularly
herbicide-resistant blackgrass has led to a campaign by some arable farmers for its return.
- In Australia stubble burning is “not the preferred option for the majority of farmers” but is permitted and recommended in some circumstances. Farmers are advised to rake and burn windrows and leave a fire break of 3 meters around any burn-off.
- In the United States, fires are fairly common in mid-western states, but some states such as Oregon and Idaho regulate the practice. ● In the European Union, the Common Agricultural Policy strongly discourages stubble burning.
- In China, there is a government ban on stubble burning; however, the practice remains relatively common.
- In northern India, despite a ban by the Punjab Pollution Control Board, stubble burning is still practiced since 1986. Authorities are starting to enforce this ban more proactively and to research alternatives.
- Stubble burning is allowed by permit in some Canadian provinces, including Manitoba where 5% of farmers were estimated to do it in 2007.
Stubble burning is a serious issue and preventing farmers from burning stubble by banning the process or punishing them is not going to be of much help in stopping the menace. Rather, innovative and practical solutions need to be implemented to permanently end this menace.
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