The solution to SMOG lies in farmer education and empowerment
Plumes of smoke arising from paddy burning have been making headlines not just in in the national capital but also in Punjab, Haryana, and parts of Pakistan. The striking rise in the air pollution level exacerbated by the cold & dry weather and stagnant winds led to a dense smog over Northern India and Pakistan. Even though stubble burning has always been a major issue, it is the recent public outrage that has made the age-old issue come to the national forefront. I have been perturbed by this issue, more so because it is a solvable problem, provided authorities show the required motivation.
This is an opportune time to discuss and implement methods which prevent this travesty, rather than pushing temporary “band-aid” like measures to address the situation. I thought of penning down my thoughts of how farmer education and empowerment can help solve this once and for all.
Stubble burning is practised by farmers to remove the stubble instantly from the fields after the harvest. It is usually required in the areas where the farmers do ‘combine harvesting’. Combines are machines that harvest, separate and clean the grain all at once. As the machines are unable to cut the crop close to the ground, the farmers are left with stubble that is of no use to them. The volume of stubble is significant, so discarding is unfeasible. The only method available, unfortunately, is incineration, which leads to pollution.
Although burning the stubble might act as a quick fix to the farmers it has shown to have catastrophic effects on the environment, hence, been banned from many countries. Loss of nutrients, pollution, the risk of uncontained fire and mass waste are just a few of the most crucial after-effects of smoke rising from the stubble burning.
My experiences on the farm along with my father and then as part of the 24 Mantra family of over 50,000 farmers from across the country have helped me understand this issue. From these perspectives, I firmly believe that educating the farmers with alternative techniques and empowering them with equipment and technology can help alleviate the problem. Here are some specific initiatives:
Inviting industry players to engage in PPP projects to make use of the stubble waste. The Government needs to engage the industry on a massive scale to use the stubble waste to create alternate fuel. The Haryana Government has asked coal plants to use the stubble along with coal in furnaces, but that might not be enough. We need many more avenues to be able to collect the waste, transport, and process in different ways in a manner which is economically feasible. Similar initiatives before have helped use rice husk in creating construction material and the like. It is time to think beyond the obvious and invest in such projects and at scale.
Educating farmers on in-farm methods to create decomposers.
One of the techniques we have seen success with is the method of ‘waste decomposition’. It is a solution prepared with effective microorganisms and made available to farmers for just Rs 20. Approved by National Centre for Organic Farming, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, ‘waste decomposer’ is an organic, non-polluting alternative to stubble burning. The solution when sprayed can decompose over 10,000 metric tons of biowaste in a period of 30 days, and can also be used for seed treatment. We can also try and decompose valuable waste. When the carbon content is low, the microorganisms in the soil provide the needed nutrients to make the soil more fertile.
Better equipment, perhaps subsidized to solve the burning issue.
There are turbo seeders which help uproot the stubble while simultaneously sowing the wheat seeds on the land that gets cleared up.
We can also try and look into setting up community compost centres for the village. There can be designated groups that can take up the job. Financing the village to buy a equipment can be like a one time investment for the farmers.
Educate the farmers on crop choices and crop rotation.
Offering farmers incentives to grow crops other than the standard wheat and rice can help them switch to the crops like maize, millets and so on. Support would be needed in terms of providing MSP for a variety of crops. The water consumption reduction and reduced input costs could be other bonus benefits of switching to different crops.
Education about the impact of stubble burning on soil health.
It is not just about the reduction of pollution. What the farmers overlook is the fact that the practice of burning reduces the nutrient, physical and biological properties of the underlying soil. Educating the farmers about the long-term ill-effects of this can provide the motivation to look for alternatives.
Our network of farmers can be the perfect starting point. These farmers are organized in self-help groups and are already receiving educative inputs from the ‘24 Mantra’ team on organic farming, using farm inputs to create natural compost and organic pesticides. The farmer network is already ushering in organic farming and might be best positioned to spread awareness about alternatives to deal with the stubble in Northern India.