Punjab’s Hoshiarpur, bordering Himachal Pradesh, has missed its zero stubble burning target this year.
But the number of instances of crop residue burning to clear the fields after the paddy harvest has been lower than usual — at least so far this year.
The situation in Hoshiarpur mirrors what’s happening in the rest of the state — while farm fires between September 15 and November 5 are lower than previous years, several interventions are yet to show their full impact. Plus, with the harvest season still underway, the full brunt of farm fires might still be felt.
“We had a target, but we have missed it,” said Lovely, Assistant Agriculture Engineer (Implements) from the Agriculture Department. Hoshiarpur was one of six districts where the Punjab government targeted zero stubble burning this year, the others being Malerkotla, Pathankot, Rupnagar, SAS Nagar and SBS Nagar.
While Malerkotla has not been listed as a separate district in crop residue burning bulletins of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the other districts have missed their zero burning target, though Pathankot has just three instances.
Between September 15 and November 5, Hoshiarpur had a fire count of 79 — significantly lower than 231 in 2022; 243 in 2021; and 359 in 2020.
Lovely pointed to factors that have helped: “With cattle rearing, straw finds other uses, including as fodder and bedding. Residue management machinery has increased over the past few years, and in the past two to three years, the use of balers has picked up. Meetings have been held with farm unions.”
Kuldev, with an acre of farmland in Hoshiarpur’s Mehmowal village, where a baler was turning the straw into neat rectangular bales, agreed that these have helped, but only as long as the straw is then picked up for use.
Lovely pointed out that the cost associated with a baler and the novelty of alternative uses to the straw means its use hasn’t picked up as much as may be necessary to bring residue burning down further. “While 45 balers were sanctioned here this year, only 26 were bought. Demand is important. There is a biomass power plant in Garhshankar which is buying the straw. Two units in Himachal Pradesh have also been buying it to use as fuel. Making pellets of the straw for use in brick kilns and industries… all of this is a new concept and will take a while to pick up,” he said.
The state had also aimed for a reduction of a little over 5,000 hectares in paddy cultivation in Hoshiarpur by diversifying to other crops. Lovely, and a submission made by the Punjab Pollution Control Board to the National Green Tribunal in October, said that crop diversification is proving difficult considering the “steadily increasing” MSP of paddy over the past three years.
Hoshiarpur has around 79,000 hectares under paddy cultivation, in addition to 26,500 hectares under sugarcane, and the total paddy straw generation here is 5.12 lakh tonnes.
This is well below the 2,38,690 hectares under paddy cultivation in Sangrur, where the total straw generation is 15.24 lakh tonnes.\
Five days after the bales were made from the straw on his 10-acre paddy field, Dilbag Singh, 48, in Sangrur’s Kheri village, was waiting for them to be picked up. “The potato crop needs to be sown. Labour is waiting, along with a tractor loaded with material to sow the crop. They (those meant to purchase the bales) said they would take the bales away to a factory, but they never returned and we haven’t been able to contact the person who operated the baler. Do we set the bales on fire now?” Singh said.
Till November 5, Sangrur had recorded 2,698 instances of burning, the highest for any district in the state, according to the IARI bulletin. This is still less than the 4,676 such instances recorded till November 5 last year, and 7,496 over the same period in 2020. In 2021, there were marginally higher instances – 2,762.
Two brothers with around 13 acres of land in Sangrur’s Kanoi village, who had set their field on fire after the harvest and did not wish to be named, said that a super-seeder, which helps plough the residue back into the soil, prepare the field for the next crop and sow the seeds, requires a 65-horsepower tractor, which they don’t have. “It is expensive. A (cooperative) society in the village has two machines (super-seeders), but we can’t wait (for our turn). With the baler, we are hearing that nobody is taking the bales away. But there are changes, and in the past few years, the number of machines has been increasing,” one of them said.
Punjab has around 1,17,672 machines this year, more than 90,422 last year.
In addition to zero burning in six districts, the state government targeted a 50% reduction in the remaining 17 districts to bring what was last year’s count of 49,922 down to 24,202 this year.
After remaining above the 1,000-mark for seven days in a row, on Sunday, the fire count in Punjab hit the highest for a single day so far – 3,230, IARI data shows. From September 15 to November 5, Punjab recorded 17,403 instances of crop residue burning this year, down from 29,400 over the same period last year, 28,937 in 2021, and 53,107 in 2020.
The theme of bales not being collected runs across the state – in Patiala’s Kheri Gandian village, Jaspal Singh set the straw on fire on six acres of land after a company from Sangrur never showed up.
Said Punjab PCB chairman Adarsh Pal Vig: “Technically, in-situ management is the best, since the nutrients are returned to the soil. But in ex-situ, there is profit, and some kind of business model is developing. Overall, there has been an effort, which is why there is a decrease (in burning) now.”
V K Sehgal, Principal Scientist, IARI, said, “The use of balers picked up in 2020 or 2021… Ex-situ measures are picking up, but the problem is we still have such a huge amount of residue that at the end of the day, we have to think about in-situ options also.”