Tarn Taran, Punjab: All that remains of the one-acre farm in Punjab is scorched earth. The paddy, harvested two days ago, has left no trace. The residue up in smoke, making its way towards Delhi.
The field cleared, the farmer will begin all over again, sowing the next crop—wheat. Rice and wheat, repeat themselves in Punjab almost as periodically as promises made every year by politicians. By mid-October, paddy is harvested and by the next month, wheat is sown. In between, there is the brief window, a few days and an annual race against time.
“Farmers don’t want to do this, we only do it out of compulsion. If we don’t sow the wheat on time, we won’t get a good yield. This field has been cleared with just one matchstick. If I had used machines on it and done this in an environment friendly manner, it wouldn’t be ready for cultivation even after 5 days. It adds a cost of Rs 5,000-6,000 per acre. Farmers are indebted anyway. There is no way we can afford this,” Gursab Singh, who grows paddy in around 15 acres of land in Tarn Taran district, says as he walks through a burnt down field.
Clearing the fields by burning paddy stubble is illegal—a report by the System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) suggesting that it accounted for 32 percent of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. These men are well aware that the national capital views them as nameless, faceless villains choking Delhi—but add, without a pause, that they are helpless, their hands tied.
Hari Singh owns land on the India-Pakistan border. Of his 25 acres, 2 are across the border fence. He says, “If we get a month (to prepare for wheat cultivation), we can bury the straw in the ground and inundate the field. The straw will, over a few weeks, get mixed with the soil and the field will be ready. That will happen only if we sow paddy on June 1. Earlier, paddy sowing used to begin in the first week of June. To save water in the summer months, when the demand for water is high, the government advanced the sowing date to June 20.”
"Farmers are indebted anyway. There is no way we can afford this."
The Punjab government has been carrying out an awareness drive among farmers, hoping that knowledge would incentivise farmers to abandon slash and burn agriculture. But lack of “knowledge”, says Hari Singh, was never the issue. “We are aware of everything but our hands are tied. We know that it (burning stubble) causes pollution. If you allow us to sow paddy on June 1 and give us (monetary) incentives, we will not burn the fields.”
Any attempts at the earnest to slap fines for violation of the ban can fast snowball into farmer agitation. Politicians thus have preferred to look the other way. Even if some farmers are fined, they prefer to pay the Rs 2,500 fine instead of shelling out Rs 6,000-7,000 for doing things the “right way”.
Dilbag Singh, the Tarn Taran district president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), said, “To remove straw properly, farmers will need to hire 5-6 workers. It will cost around Rs 6,000 per acre. This is the cost of not burning the straw. He will prefer to pay the Rs 2,500 per acre fine. It still saves Rs 3,500.”
Hari Singh even said he would prefer to go to jail rather than pay the fine. “We prefer going to jail. If the fine is Rs 2,500 per acre, we can spend 5 days in jail instead of paying that fine.”
The Punjab government offers subsidies on farm equipment to dispose the straw. But even with the subsidy, these machines cost around a lakh and remain out of reach for most farmers. Among these is the ‘Happy Seeder’, a machine that cuts the stubble and buries seeds in the ground simultaneously.
“Who is getting the subsidy? Nobody has got the benefit. A ‘Happy Seeder’ costs Rs 1.5 lakh. Government pays 50,000 to the company, farmers pay 1 lakh. Machines will take days to get the field ready. Besides, these machines have their own problems. A ‘Happy Seeder’, for example, can’t cut straw if it grows too long. And the fertilizer doesn’t reach all the way to the ground if one uses a Happy Seeder,” said Dilbag Singh.
Kuldeep Singh comes from a long line of landlords and owns around 200 acres of land across Punjab. He hasn’t burnt paddy stubble since 2003 because his conscience won’t allow it. He can afford the expensive machinery. “My own zamir (conscience) told me not to burn it. Burning the stubble causes a lot of damage. The friendly insects die. Children of animals die. It’s like committing a sin. Other farmers would tell me, you have the means to do this. But how can we manage the funds? Everyone can’t afford to buy expensive machines or tractors worth Rs 7 lakh,” he said.
For his efforts to reduce pollution, Kuldeep Singh was honoured by the state government many times. But honour, he says, is not a solution. Only monetary assistance can stop this polluting practice. “Money, not honour, will help us. We want farmers who don’t burn fields should be incentivised. If they do that, not a single farmer will burn the straw. It will strengthen the soil and this will cover the cost of diesel. It will also save us from pollution.”
If they had a month, instead of just over a week, between crop cycles, farmers say they could inundate their fields and mix the straw with the soil. But to save the air, they would have to invest in another valuable resource: the water. It may be hard to believe, but the land of five rivers may be facing a water crisis.
"Money, not honour, will help us."
Hari Singh says this has now become a zero sum game between the two elements of nature. “You can either save water or air. If we burn the field, we save water. If we use ploughs, it will cost a lot more water. Our canal system was so good. That's not the case anymore.”
Kuldeep Singh agrees. “In the last 30 years, the groundwater levels have gone down. This is despite the fact that there are so many rivers here. In the next 30 years, our Punjab will become Rajasthan.”
Dilbag Singh adds, “We demand Rs 200 per quintal bonus as incentive for not burning the soil. If they can’t do that, then allow us to grow opium. Calculate the cost and pay us R. 10 less than that amount. What do we do with the straw if we don’t burn it?”
The deadlock between Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and the Centre persists.
Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh has asked the Prime Minister for a Rs 31,000 crore credit line. The Delhi government says its hands are tied unless neighbouring states crack down on this practice. The period when the harvest of paddy ends and the cultivation of wheat begins is just around ten days. Farmers in Punjab say they have neither the time nor the resources to dispose the paddy straw in an environment friendly manner in this very small window.
The burden of ensuring that Delhi doesn't choke falls on these farmers. But they have a question. What has Delhi done for them?