A big reason farmers in Punjab are being forced to burn the paddy stubble to clear their fields is an acute shortage of ‘Happy Seeder Machines’ because of artificially inflated costs. These machines do in-situ straw management and help reduce the prevalence of stubble burning.
In Punjab, officials said against a requirement of 35,000 happy seeders, farmers have so far been supplied around just 4,500 such machines.
In neighbouring Haryana, state government officials say they are in better position than last year to control stubble burning and that there has been almost 85 per cent drop in the practice between October 8-10, as compared to the same period last year. A clearer picture will emerge around mid-October, when the bulk of the field management takes place. Already, there are reports of farmers burning their stubble.
In Punjab, common paddy or basmati rice is cultivated in about three million hectares, of which straw management is required in two million hectares, while in the remaining area, farmers have their own arrangement for straw management.
The state produces about 20 million tonnes of paddy straw each year.
It is to manage the straw from two million hectares scientifically, that about 35,000 Happy seeder machines are required. While 4,500 have been given to farmers so far, some more will be added in the next 5-7 days.
The Centre offers 50 per cent subsidy to individual farmers for buying straw management equipment. This goes up to 80 per cent for machines owned by cooperatives, farmers’ groups or farmer-producer organistions (FPOs) through custom hiring.
Happy seeder machines are the most common equipment for on-field straw management.
The use of this equipment does not involve removal of stubble from the fields but allows the farmer to plant wheat seeds in the fields without their being jammed by the rice stubble.
The Central government has, since 2018-19, started sanctioning around Rs 17.56 billion for in-situ management of rice straw in four major north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi NCR.
An average-make Happy seeder machine should cost Rs 100,000-115,000 apiece, but experts say ever since the government announced a hefty 50 per cent subsidy, the cost escalated to almost Rs 150,000-155,000, which shows that someone somewhere is trying to manipulate the market.
“Though there is subsidy of 50 per cent which would bring down the cost of a happy seeder machine to around Rs 75,000 for an individual farmer, as soon subsidy is announced, the cost escalates, indicating some manipulation somewhere,” Vikram Ahuja, a farmers and agri-entrepreneur working in the field of crop residue management for farmers, told Business Standard.
He said despite spending so much money, farmers use straw management equipment for just four-six hours for a few weeks, while for the remaining days the machine remains idle making them economically unviable.
“The solution to this lies in custom hiring models and ola/uber type of hiring of farm equipment,” Ahuja said.
In Haryana, state government officials say the situation is different and till date, around 3,000 straw management machines have been delivered, while 1,100 custom hiring centres have been set up.
The state does not keep separate details of different varieties of straw management equipment.
The focus is on opening more custom hiring centres to address the issue of unaffordability of farm equipment.
“Between October 8-10 last year, satellite images show that there were around 200 fire sites every day, while this year during the same period there are around 30 fires, which includes fires by industries,” J S Chahal, Joint Director Agriculture Engineering, Haryana government told Business Standard.
In Haryana, paddy (including basmati rice) is cultivated in about 1.3 million hectares of land, from which 12 million tonnes of straw are produced each year.
Chahal said the state had some 400 custom hiring centres last year, while in 2018 they plan to open another 1,230 such outlets. “Of this so far about 1,100 custom hiring centres have already been opened,” he said.
Apart from Happy seeders, rotavators and mulchers, there is a host of other equipment such as balers and rakes, which provide long-term solution to stubble burning. However, their cost is very high and farmers cannt affird them, more so when government subsidy does not cover such high-value equipment.
“The cost of a single baler is more than Rs 1.6 million, which most farmers can’t afford. That apart, the equipment also needs a proper thermal power plant within 20-25 km, where the bales can be sold. Unless these arrangements are made, it will not be financially viable for farmers to own these machines,” a senior executive from a multinational farm equipment maker said.
While the government is grappling with solutions to address the stubble burning issue, the air around capital Delhi is expected to get worse in the days to come.
“Around October 15, the wind will change direction over north-west India and could push the smoke from stubble burning towards Delhi. A drop in temperature and decline in wind flow could lead to the formation of haze over Delhi,” Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist Skymet said.
(with inputs from Arup Roychoudhury)