Chandigarh: During this harvest season, more than 1 million hectares of farmland in Punjab caught fire because farmers rushed to dispose of millions of tons of straw before they had to plant the next crop.
Unlike wheat straw, rice stubble cannot be used as feed because of its high silica content. Since farmers have less than 25 days after the rice harvest to prepare their fields for sowing wheat, they resort to burning these residues.
Nearly 20 million metric tons of rice stubble is produced during the harvest from October to November each year. In 2020, the total area of rice planted in Punjab Province will be 3.149 million hectares.
As of November 15, a total of 67,165 residual fires were reported this season, compared with nearly 74,000 in the same period last year. “The total burned area this season (as of November 10) has also been reduced from 1.544 million hectares last year to 10.34 million hectares,” said Krunesh Garg, member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Commission.
The governments of India and Punjab have spent tens of millions of rupees to control farm fires in the past few years, but all efforts have been ineffective. ThePrint explains why.
The various methods used in straw management can be roughly divided into two types: off-site and on-site. The off-site measures use straw outside the field, while the in-situ method aims to manage the straw inside the field.
Read also: Awareness Camps, Machines, Inspections-How Ambala in Haryana reduced farm fires by 80% in one year
Punjab State started to build biomass power plants in 2005 with the purpose of using straw to generate electricity. But in the following 16 years, only 11 such factories have been established. These devices can only generate 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity, and can hardly consume 1 million tons of straw each year.
“Biomass power plants are producing expensive electricity that distribution companies are not ready to purchase. Therefore, it is not attractive to build more projects,” said Navjot Singh Randhawa, CEO of the Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA). "Last year, we wrote to the center asking it to provide such projects with a viability gap fund at a rate of Rs 5 crore per MW to encourage them. But there was no response," he added.
“The process of producing green energy is always more expensive. In terms of straw, purchasing, transportation and storage will incur additional costs,” said Pawanpreet Singh, head of the Punjab Biomass Power Plant Association. “The most effective solution is to build more power plants, but the entire government’s efforts have been to sell machinery to farmers to manage rice residues. The government should commission a study to evaluate the impact of building biomass power plants on reducing nearby farms. The impact of the fire."
Straw is also converted into briquettes and pellets, which can be used as fuel for industrial boilers and brick kilns.
There are two straw briquettes factories in Punjab. Taken together, they have a production capacity of 124 tons per day (TPD) and consume only 44,000 metric tons of straw.
“The scope of setting up straw briquetting and pelletizing devices is huge. The challenge is to source straw from the ground within a small window 20 days after harvest. Unlike baled straw, the pellets are compact, easy to store, and have a longer shelf life.” Said Pritpal Singh, a senior engineer at the Punjab Science and Technology Commission.
PEDA and Punjab Power Company Limited (PSPCL) have issued tenders to build two 100-TPD straw pelletizing and drying plants. “These will be set up in our thermal power plants in Bathinda and Ropar, and the pellets produced will be burned with coal,” said A. Venuprasad, another chief secretary, chairman and managing director of PSPCL.
Garg added that Punjab is building 22 compressed biomass gas projects with a total production capacity of 229.35 TPD, which will consume 800,000 metric tons of straw. The first of them is likely to be put into use next month, and the other two are under construction.
HPCL has also established a second-generation bioethanol plant capable of producing 100 kiloliters of ethanol per day in Bathinda, but its progress is behind schedule. The project will use nearly 200,000 tons of straw.
In August, the Punjab Provincial Government provided financial incentives worth 250 million rupees, with a ceiling of 5 million rupees per piece of equipment for the installation of straw boilers. The new boiler also needs to use straw as fuel.
Currently, only 6 of the 4,000 boilers in Punjab Province use rice straw as fuel, which consumes about 500,000 tons of rice straw each year.
"More industries will start to use straw as fuel, because in the long run, straw is cheaper. But initially, the government should control these units. Cheema Boilers marketing director Tejinder Singh said that the 5 million rupees reward is peanuts.
"The initial cost of using straw as fuel is higher because it requires changes to the boiler design and storage of straw bales for up to a year. In addition, people are worried about the stored straw catching fire because it is highly flammable," he added.
Adding all the off-site measures together, the total amount of straw used by them is slightly more than 1.5 million tons-only 0.3% of the production in Punjab.
BS Sidhu, member secretary of the Punjab Farmers Committee, said that for large-scale off-site use, the collection, transportation and storage of millions of tons of residues is impossible. “Storing 1 million tons of rice straw will require approximately 2,500 hectares of land. In addition, removal of residues will result in the consumption of essential plant nutrients and soil organic matter. Only on the farm, that is, in situ, management methods are sustainable and profitable And practical."
Read also: Stubble burning unfounded tones and weeping: SC pulls up the center of Delhi pollution, states
The most common in-situ method is to cut straw and spread it in the field (mulch) or use special equipment to push it into the soil (incorporation). Another method is to biochemically treat it to make it decompose in situ.
The main focus of the government has been to sell the machines needed to manage the rice stubble to farmers at subsidized prices.
The Indian government provided the full subsidy amount, and since the launch of the program in 2018, Punjab has spent 11 billion rupees. A single farmer receives a subsidy of 50% of the total cost of crop residue management (CRM) equipment, while a village cooperative or a group of farmers receives 80%.
“To date, more than 86,000 CRM machines have been sold to farmers. These machines may help manage 10 million tons of straw and 1.4 million hectares of arable land,” said Jagdish Singh, the co-director of agriculture in Punjab.
But buying these machines is not the first choice for farmers. "Despite subsidies, CRM machines are still very expensive. Depending on the soil quality and the crops (wheat or vegetables) that must be grown, the additional cost is Rs. 1,800 per acre of 3,400. Therefore, in addition to this subsidy, cash is provided to farmers Motivation is essential," Sidhu said.
Farmers usually use the combine harvesters they rent to harvest rice fields. The combine harvester leaves loose straw and stubble in the soil. Most of these residues will be burned to prepare for the next crop-this is a one-step operation.
In contrast, if the straw is not burned, the process will require several steps using a CRM machine. On average, these machines cost 1.5 to 200,000 rupees per farmer. “First, the combine harvester is equipped with a Super Straw Management System (SMS). When harvesting, SMS chopped up the loose straw and spread it evenly in the field. SMS does not process standing stubs. The cost of a text message is slightly more than 110,000 rupees. "Said Dr. Mahesh Narang, Chief Extension Scientist of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana.
"The sowing of wheat is done using the Happy Planter or Super Planter, both of which further process the straw," Dr. Naran added. The price of the Happy Planter ranges from 16 to 170 thousand rupees, while the price of the Super Planter is from 200 thousand rupees to 240,000 rupees.
Farmers say that the CRM machines sold by the government are expensive. “The price of text messages in the market is as low as Rs. 35,000. But I paid Rs. 55,000 after a 50% subsidy,” said Sukha Singh, an Ajnala farmer who bought two SMS machines.
Sidhu said: “The prices of subsidized machines are higher because the government purchases them from a small number of suppliers who claim to provide better after-sales services.”
To solve this cost problem, the government has launched a customized recruitment center (CHC) or agricultural machinery bank to lease these machines. But this has had little effect
"This is because CRM machines are only used during the rice harvesting season that lasts two months. For those running CHC, just owning these machines is not a profitable business," Sidhu said.
The farmer added that due to the high price of diesel, SMS has not been widely used this season. "When the text message is attached, the diesel consumption of the combine harvester will double. The cost of renting the combine harvester is Rs. 1,200 USD per acre, which is increased to Rs. 1,500 via SMS," said a farmer from Wilka, Amritsar Amrik Singh said.
In 2019, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to encourage farmers to stop burning rice. After that, Punjab decided to provide 2,500 rupees per acre to smallholders and marginal farmers who do not burn straw.
This resulted in the distribution of 200 million rupees to 31,000 farmers in 2019, but no further payments have been made since. “There was no payment afterwards because there was no budget. This year, we received Rs. 400 million, but it has not been allocated,” said Jaideep Singh, an agricultural development officer in Punjab.
“Cash in the states is already very tight. The Indian government should increase the amount of rewards based on the minimum support price for farmers who do not burn straw,” said Manpreet Singh Badal, the finance minister of Punjab.
There are also continuous attempts to use biochemicals to decompose field straw.
The first fungal cocktail decomposer developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and similar products developed by PAU were tested for applicability last year.
Dr. GS Kochar, head of the Department of Microbiology at PAU, said that neither of the resolvers achieved the expected results. "The time required to decompose rice straw is almost the same as the time required to decompose rice straw on its own. So we don't recommend either of these two," he said, adding that PAU is working to develop a better decomposer.
Also read: How an agricultural technology company helped farmers in Haryana, Punjab, use biodegradants to curb stubble burning
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