Farmers cannot afford the expensive machines required to dissolve the paddy stubble after harvest in Punjab. As a result, they end up burning close to 10 million tonnes of biomass every year.
Agricultural scientists recommend the use of happy seeders, zero tillage machines, balers and other equipment to clear fields for the next crop. A happy seeder costs Rs 1.25 lakh and a zero tillage machine comes at a price of Rs 50,000.
Punjab has close to 2.6 million hectares under paddy and only 5-7 per cent of the farms are cleared by machines. A farmer has to spend an average Rs 2,000-2,500 to dispose of the paddy residue and prepare the field for wheat.
The state government, under various crop development programmes, provides 50 per cent subsidy on the machines. Yet only 10,000 hectares of land in Punjab is cleared with the use of modern technology.
Farmers need an affordable solution to clear their fields and the state government has not been able to provide them one. Under the circumstances, burning is the easiest way to get rid of the paddy stubble.
The Union environment ministry issued directions to the state government last week to take action against farmers for burning crop residue. The state government is under pressure this year from the declining returns on basmati and a whitefly attack on the cotton crop. So no punitive action has been taken against erring farmers so far.
An official at the Punjab Pollution Control Board confirmed that no farmer had been booked for burning paddy stubble this year. A notification by the Punjab government in 2013 to stop the burning of paddy stubble has yielded little result: 53 farmers were penalised that year and the number dwindled to 16 the following year.
Awareness camps organised by the state agriculture department to highlight the ill effects of burning the residue serve a limited purpose: farmers are aware of the benefits of not burning biomass; it is just that they cannot afford not to.
The problem is more acute in Punjab because the crop is harvested across the state in a short span and the entire state sows the next crop around the same time.