Punjab’s largely symbolic protest against the Farm Act 2020 cannot distract public attention from the ‘burning’ issue of farm fires, currently at a four-year peak. The state’s flailing economy and the Congress’s political compulsions have hamstrung the fight against the annual scourge of toxic smoke from the fields.
The solutions are many and varied, but require a level of political will that the state government lacks. In effect, the problem is linked to another ‘burning’ issue — that of power subsidy.
The immediate cause of farm fires is well-known: wither combine-harvesters go, stubble-burning follows. Farmers do not have the wherewithal to clear the 40-cm post-harvest stubble left by the harvesters, without burning. Labour is too expensive and so is machinery.
Time is also a factor, as the window between the kharif harvest of paddy and rabi sowing of wheat is short. The excessive use of ground water for rice (a thirsty crop) prompted the state to shift the paddy sowing closer to the monsoons, thus giving the farmer scant days to prepare his field for rabi sowing — any delay results in a fall in yields.
Taking the technological approach, the government has sought to provide farmers with subsidised machinery, namely the ‘happy seeder’, which cuts and spreads the paddy straw over the field, while sowing wheat. Complaints of poor wheat germination as a result of this process have detracted from the popularity of the machine. The harvester-mounted super straw management system is a better option, but less than 40 per cent of the machines in operation have one.
Arguably, farmers could use the straw for manure, as rapid composting solutions are available. The composted straw could be ploughed into the soil with a rotavator, to improve fertility and reduce expenditure on fertilisers. But the process takes several weeks and involves a cost, upwards of Rs 300 per acre. A box of matches is cheaper and faster.
The post-monsoon paddy straw is unsuitable for fodder and therefore of no value to farmers, but has myriad industrial applications — in biomass power plants, paper manufacturing and brick kilns, for example. Then there’s pyrolysis, a process whereby high-grade silica, lignins and organic manure can be obtained from paddy straw.
But Punjab, for various reasons, has failed to attract private investment in this field, with the result that buyers are few and far between and the prices offered very low, thereby discouraging the farmer from investing in balers which uproot and package the straw for sale.
A valid question is why, in the absence of private investment, the state government hasn’t stepped in to set up hundreds of bio-mass and pyrolysis plants? This brings us to Punjab’s poor economic health, one reason why the state would rather fuss about the Farm Act than set its house in order.
The state’s fiscal position is precarious. Its debt burden is expected to touch almost Rs 2.5 lakh crore this year, which is about 40 per cent of the GSDP. Caught in an inexorable cycle of debt servicing and borrowings, it faces a severe resource crunch. After meeting salaries, pensions, subsidies and debt-servicing, there’s no room for spending on development.
Thus, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, under intense pressure from the courts and environmental agencies to stub out the culture of stubble-burning, passes the buck to the Centre. He has reiterated his demand, raised last year, for compensation of Rs 1,000 per tonne of paddy straw to farmers (at an average of two tonnes of per acre). Punjab has also asked the Centre to finance biomass power plants.
For its part, the Centre wants to see some commitment from the state towards improving its finances. This means addressing power subsidies, currently billed at Rs 16,400 crore. Almost three-quarters of the annual subsidy are on account of agriculture, allowing farmers to run their tubewells and grow water-intensive paddy.
Rolling back the subsidy is politically unviable, given that the party’s support base comprises farmers. So why not give the subsidy directly to farmers, as suggested by the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill? The tubewell connections could be metered and payments made accordingly — thereby plugging ‘leakages’ of electricity. But the state government has categorically refused.
So here’s the conundrum: the power subsidy encourages farmers to grow water-guzaling paddy. The farmer then burns the paddy stubble. Political compulsions prevent the state government from rolling back the power subsidy. Paddy farming and field-burning continue. Air pollution intensifies. Delhi chokes.
There are vicious cycles within cycles. Biannual field-burning destroys soil fertility and boosts use of fertilisers, which in turn increases dependence on water and power. The power subsidy is, as the group of experts on Punjab’s economic revival said, “a major burden on the state’s finances”, restricting its ability to undertake other expenditures such as helping farmers in straw management.
The overuse of ground water results in falling water tables and this in turn means more dependence on power. Small wonder there’s a long waiting list for tubewell connections. The question of charging a groundwater cess, of course, does not even arise.
Punjab’s virtual water exports and power subsidies mount, the state sinks deeper into the debt trap and finds itself on the cusp of an ecological crisis.
Facing opprobrium for its ‘soft’ approach to field burning, the Punjab government has declared various disincentives and incentives to contain it but with limited success, especially in far-flung and less prosperous regions like Majha. Farmers have cited numerous problems, such as late harvest due to Covid-induced shortage of labour, fear of pest infestation in unburnt fields, lack of compensation for expenses incurred in straw management and so on.
The only long-term solution is a change in the cropping pattern. Farmers are willing to shift from paddy to less water-and-labour intensive crops like maize and cotton or pulses and oilseeds, provided it is economically viable.
The state government must work with the Centre to help farmers break free of the MSP-supported paddy and wheat cycle with an alternative procurement model. The rest, like the shindy over the emancipation of farmers from the restrictive APMC regime through the Farm Act, is just smoke and mirrors.