In early October, the paddy in Punjab’s Sangrur district was in the final stages of ripening. Fields rippled in various shades of green and golden-brown, the latter indicating crop that was almost ready to be harvested.

The picturesque landscape belied a problem that the state had to grapple with soon after, and has grappled with for years: the burning of stubble. After paddy is harvested in mid and late October, the fields are left with a stubble of stalks about two feet high. Because the sowing cycle for wheat begins in late October, farmers have very little time to prepare their fields – so, they typically set fire to the stubble, and then clear the residue.

The practice is widespread in Punjab. Sangrur, in particular, has since 2016 seen the highest number of stubble-burning events in the state every year – in 2021, there were over 8,000 such fires in the district.

Stubble burning has long been criticised for contributing to the immense air pollution of nearby areas, especially Delhi and the National Capital Region. Multiple state governments of Punjab, as well as the Central government, have sought to tackle the problem through various means, ranging from outlawing stubble burning, to providing a one-time cash incentive to small and marginal farmers if they avoided burning stubble.

But conversations with farmers, agricultural experts, and sellers of residue-management machines in five villages in Sangrur in early October indicated that these efforts had thus far met with limited success. “A scaled-up solution to the issue of stubble burning has still not received a push from the government’s side,” said Nirmal Singh, a farmer from Longowal.

In Punjab, paddy is harvested in mid and late October, while wheat is planted in late October. Because there is limited time between the two crops, farmers clear the fields by burning stubble. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP

The problem has been in a particularly sharp spotlight since 2013, when the Aam Aadmi Party-led government came to power in Delhi, and heavily criticised Punjab and other neighbouring states for burning stubble and contributing to the capital’s toxic pollution in the winter.

In March this year, the party won the Punjab state election with a landslide victory, after which its leader Bhagwant Mann, who was elected from the Sangrur constituency, took office as the chief minister. Understandably, its moves to tackle stubble burning are being closely watched.

“Who knows, maybe this year, Punjab’s pollution might not reach Delhi!” one farmer in the village of Longowal remarked with a chuckle.

The government’s budget indicated that it was committed to tackling the problem: it allocated Rs 200 crore in 2022-’23 for “compensation of stubble management”. This was a massive increase from the Rs 40 crore allocated the previous year – itself a major increase from the meagre Rs 1 lakh allocated in 2020-’21.

But the budget did not include a detailed breakdown of how this money was to be spent. I emailed questions to government and party spokespersons, including about the government’s plans for expenditure. As of the time of publication, they had not responded.

Some farmers that I spoke with across the five villages had adopted some of the solutions they had been offered for stubble burning, such as biodecomposer capsules to break it down, but were unsatisfied with the results.

Nearly every farmer I spoke to had encountered awareness campaigns against the practice. “There is no denying that the current government is arranging awareness campaigns and training programmes to spread awareness about the negative impacts of stubble burning. But it’s not like we don’t know the ill-effects of it,” said Harjinder Singh, a resident of Garachaon, and member of Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan. “When we burn the stubble, before reaching Delhi, it impacts us, causing burning in eyes and shortness in breath. The burning also kills some friendly insects in the soil that are healthy for our crops.”

He added, “What will they teach us? What we need desperately are alternative solutions to stubble burning.”

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The problem of stubble burning is closely tied in with Punjab’s agricultural history. From the 1960s onwards, with the advent of the Green Revolution, the state saw an emphatic shift away from diverse crops like moong, groundnuts, jowar, maize and cotton, to a two-crop cycle of wheat and rice. While this brought relative prosperity to many farmers, it also gave rise to the large-scale challenge of managing paddy stubble.

The Green Revolution included the wide distribution of “high yielding variety” seeds of wheat and rice, a high use of pesticides, and increase in the use of machines, such as tractors. By 1984-’85, Punjab used more high-yielding seeds and pesticides than any other state, and had the highest number of farming machines.

“After the Green Revolution, the income for Punjab’s farmers definitely increased,” said Harjinder Singh, as we sat in an air-conditioned room in his large home, with his family’s cows mooing outside. “Over the years, we were able to move to machines and meet other demands of bigger homes and ACs.”

He added, “With that, farming in Punjab became so dependent on machines that for younger people, there isn’t as much work. Our elders keep taunting us, telling us how much our paunch has increased, since we don’t do any work in the fields!” Harjinder Singh laughed.

The shift was also accompanied by a decline in other crops. “With the revolution, paddy dominated all the other crops our parents had grown traditionally,” Harjinder Singh said.

Harjinder Singh, a farmer in the village of Gharchaon, explained that with the advent of the Green Revolution, farmers’ incomes rose, while farming began to be dominated by paddy. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

This dominance of rice – as well as wheat – is apparent in Sangrur, as in every other part of the state. As per the 2011 census, paddy was sown in 2.7 lakh hectares in the district, or 87% of the net sown area, in the kharif season, and wheat was sown in 2.8 lakh hectares, or 92% of the net sown area, in the rabi season. (Net sown area refers to the “total area sown with crops and orchards” – a piece of land that grows more than one cycle of crop in a year is counted only once.)

As the cropping pattern changed, so did the demand for irrigation for the water-guzzling paddy crop. At the end of the 1960s, Punjab had about 1,500 tubewells per lakh hectare of gross cropped area. (The term refers to the total area that is cultivated each year – a piece of land is counted as many times as it is sown.) This figure rose 566% by 1986, to more than 10,000 tube wells per lakh hectare. Even today, Sangrur’s irrigation is largely dependent on tubewells; the various channels of Sirhind canal, an extensive canal system that channels water from Sutlej river to Punjab’s fields, feed only 8%of irrigated land in the district.

Unsurprisingly, then, soon after the 1980s, Punjab found itself facing a water crisis.

To reduce the dependence on groundwater for irrigation, the state government passed the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009. The law allowed paddy to be transplanted from nurseries to fields only after a date set by the government, typically in mid-June, after the onset of the monsoon – this was intended to ensure that farmers could rely to a significant extent on rain for irrigation, and did not draw more groundwater than was essential.

However, a 2021 study indicated that despite the passage of this law, Punjab’s groundwater continued to plummet as the area under paddy cultivation, as well as the number of electrified tubewells, increased.

Further, the delaying of transplantation reduced the interval, a few months later, between the time paddy could be harvested and wheat seeds could be sown. Burning stubble then became a quick solution.

Many policy experts have advised a shift back to a situation where Punjab grew a diverse range of crops, as a long-term solution to the stubble problem. But LS Kurinji, a policy researcher with the think-tank Council on Environment, Energy, and Water, or CEEW, noted, “If farmers are to diversify, they will need support.”

She explained, “The cultivation, harvesting, and post-harvesting of the rice-wheat cropping system will be different from the other crops. Changing this will require a shift in farming equipment and inputs as well. So, unless the push comes from both state and Centre, the diversification will not happen.”

For farmers, the biggest factor holding them back from diversifying is the lack of a minimum support price, or MSP, for other crops. In Mehlan village, Jagjit Singh grew moong this year. He was encouraged by an announcement by the AAP government that it would ensure an MSP of Rs 7,275 per quintal on the dal, which AAP claimed made it the first crop in Punjab, other than rice and wheat, with an assured MSP.

But an officer from Sangrur’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra, who requested anonymity, observed that he saw little action towards diversification on the ground. “A lot farmers have shown interest in diversifying their crops,” he said. “But the government is not procuring these crops at a large scale from them. So, even when the MSP is announced, these crops often get sold below it.”

Jagjit Singh ran into an additional problem. “Half of my moong crop was damaged by the rain, and so the quality of it came down,” he said. “I had to sell it at prices much below the MSP.”

He is not alone. In Sangrur district this year, while a total of 8,005 quintals of moong dal were collected by the six marketing committees in the district, 6,709 quintals, or 83% of this crop, was sold at less than the MSP, according to Punjab State Agricultural Marketing Board. Most of this crop was sold to private players.

The problems with minimum support prices even extend to rice.

Kulvinder Singh, who has a seven-acre farm in Mehlan village, explained that he grew a variety of rice known as PUSA-44 on most of his farm, because it has an MSP, and grew PUSA-1509, which does not, on a smaller area. This despite the fact that the latter reaches maturity faster, and leaves much less stubble – which can be removed easily, without burning, while he is ploughing the field to prepare it for wheat. He noted that PUSA-1509 “also gives equal yield, but it’s a risk to grow it since this variety is not procured at MSP in the market. Many farmers do grow it in addition to the other varieties of paddy, and usually the area dedicated to 1509 is much less.”

Kulvinder’s farm also has a small section in which he has tried to implement another proposed solution to the problem of clearing stubble. This is the method of direct seeding of rice, or siddi bijai, as it is known in Punjabi, hailed by many agricultural experts as a technique that requires less water. Farmers who adopt this method prepare their fields with moisture, so that rice seeds can be sown directly into the field, as opposed to the traditional method of transplanting the seeds from a nursery to puddled fields.

By some estimates, this method reduces the water required for irrigation by between 15% and 20%. Further, since this method cuts out the time otherwise spent on transplantation, it is intended to reduce the time needed for the crop to reach maturity by about 10 days. Some experts hoped this would leave more time before the start of wheat sowing, thus allowing farmers to manage the stubble, instead of burning it.

Kulvinder Singh and Jagjit Singh of Mehlana village. Jagjit Singh grew moong after the government announced an MSP for the crop, but had to sell it at a lower price after it was damaged. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The current AAP government in Punjab also announced a cash incentive of Rs 1,500 per acre in May this year for farmers who grew rice through this method. The money was to be paid after a process of verification of the eligible beneficiaries. But Kulvinder, and many other farmers that I spoke with who practised direct seeding had not received the incentives so far, despite the government acknowledging the delay in September and stating that the money would be “released soon”.

Further, farmers I spoke to mentioned that even when they sowed rice using this method, the crop only took around five days less to mature than it otherwise did. This, they said, was not enough of a difference to significantly reduce the need to burn the stubble.

Many farmers also complained that they had to struggle with weeds when they took up direct seeding. Among them was Kulvinder Singh, who heard about the technique during agricultural fairs that were organised by Punjab Agricultural University, and thought adopting it would be beneficial. “The method requires the seeding to be done by a machine, so it definitely reduced the labour costs,” he said. “But this crop got infested by weeds. I then ended up using all the money I saved on labour initially to employ them to remove the weeds.”

The Krishi Vigyan Kendra officer explained that many farmers who adopted this technique had the same problem. “In DSR, there is no need to have standing water while the paddy grows and reaches maturation,” he said. “That gives weeds the scope to grow, which is not possible when water stays puddled in the fields. Which is why in the conventional puddling method, this problem of weeds does not occur.”

In one of the most prominent measures to tackle stubble burning, from 2018 onwards, the Central government offered farmers subsidises to purchase machines to harvest the crop and clear the stubble. This was done under a scheme known as the Promotion of Agricultural Mechanisation for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi.

This scheme offers a subsidy of 50% for various crop residue machines, such as the Super Straw Management System and the Happy Seeder. A farmer can either buy the equipment at full cost and get the subsidy in their bank accounts, or can buy the machine at the subsidised rate from the seller, in whose account the amount of subsidy is to be paid within a month of sale.

Advertisements for these machines were plastered on billboards along highways in Sangrur in October. The roads were busy with tractors trailing various such machines to showrooms for servicing.

But accounts on the ground suggest that there are problems with the execution of this scheme.

“For our sales through eight months of 2020, Rs 47 lakh worth subsidies on equipment we sold have not been returned to our business from the Central government,” said Jagjit Singh of Kanoi village, who owns an agricultural equipment business, as we sat in his office space in his garage-cum-showroom in Sangrur city.

He added, “It’s still stuck, and we have not been given any answers to our constant follow up with various departments. After speaking with other sellers, our estimate is that in the entire Punjab, there is about Rs 57 crores stuck in similar cases.”

One of the most publicised machines is the rotovator, which chops stubble into pieces before spreading it across the fields. This aims to ensure that the chopped stubble does not need burning, and that the fields can be ploughed in preparation of wheat.

Among the most prominent tactics to fight stubble has been the introduction of subsidies on farming machines, such as rotovators, that can be used to clear fields and plant crop. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Jagjit Singh, a farmer from Mehlan decided last year to buy a second-hand rotavator for Rs 75,000. After that, he used it once – and never used it again.

“Soon after I ran the rotavator on the field, I was able to sow the wheat seeds,” Jagjit Singh said. “I was happy I didn’t have to burn the stubble. But within 15 days, I noticed that the saplings of wheat had started to show damage from the pink bollworm.”

In paddy, this light-pink worm resides in the stalk of the crop, reproducing quickly, and damaging the grains and leaves. Since the stubble is left behind – although chopped and churned by the rotavator – some bollworms survive in it till the wheat crop is sown, which the worms then feast on. In Mehlan, Jagjit Singh stood in a field of paddy, with brown, wilted leaves, and snapped the stalk of one plant – out popped a wriggling worm.

“I quickly rushed to the Krishi Vigyan Kendra for advice last year,” he said. Officials there “tried to help me with some advice of spraying a solution on the fields. But even after spraying and waiting for a couple days, there seemed to be no impact on the worms. I lost about 70% of my wheat crop.”

As compensation, Jagjit Singh received four packets of seeds, whose yield was low. Two other farmers from his village who rented a rotavator to get rid of their paddy stubble struggled with the same problem. They did not even receive the compensatory wheat seeds. According to their estimates, about 80 acres of wheat in their village, which were cleared with a rotovator, were damaged by the pink bollworm.

For smaller farmers like Jagjit Singh, such losses can be devastating. “I own five acres, and lease another eight from bigger farmers,” he said. “Such agricultural losses hit my family hard, because not only did I lose the produce which I could have sold, I also have to pay the lease money of Rs 60,000 per acre to the thekedaar.”

He added, “This year, I plan to burn the stubble, so that in case there are any bollworms in the stubble of the crop, they die with the fire.”

Farmers in three of the five villages I visited reported cases of pink bollworm in fields where they had used machines to remove the stubble. “One big difference is that if we choose to burn the stubble, the chances of the worm surviving is marginal,” explained Dharminder, a farmer from Lehla Kalan, another village that saw attacks of pink bollworm. “As compared to using rotavators and other machines, where they continue to live in much larger populations with the shredded stubble spread in the field, ready to attack the wheat crop.”

He added, “Many farmers who initially bought Happy Seeders or rotavators and saw such attacks have now sold the machines for metal scraps.”

Many farmers who used machines, such as rotovators, reported that their wheat crop was infested with pink bollworm. They found that burning stubble was more effective at killing the pest. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

There are some farmers who have taken to using the machines, such as Nirmal Singh, from the village of Longowal. Nirmal Singh bought a Happy Seeder, in 2012. Within three years, he was relying on it entirely to clear his fields for the wheat crop. “I get my farm’s soil tested every year,” he said. “Since I stopped burning stubble, the quality of my soil has increased, and tests reveal a higher organic matter in my soils.”

But in any case, for many who want to try them, these machines remain out of reach. “There are complementary things that a farmer needs to possess, to be able to use the various residue-management machines,” Chamkor Singh, from the village of Mehlan, said. “First, we’ll have to spend over a lakh on Happy Seeder.”

Then, he explained, the machine would need a tractor equipped with an engine with a high horsepower, “which would cost another Rs 7-8 lakh”. Further, he said, diesel to run the tractor would be expensive. “It’s a lot of initial investment, which gets used just for a few days in the entire year,” he said.

Some farmers suggested that the government needed to introduce schemes for renting these machines if they wanted them to be used widely. “In our society, we own one Super Seeder, and one Happy Seeder, which we rent out to farmers who need them during the stubble season,” said one farmer who was passing through Jagjit Singh’s showroom, and who is the president of a farmer’s cooperative society of a neighbouring village. “But just two machines for an entire village that is running against time to prepare their fields is just not enough.”

Others echoed this concern. “Even if some farmers want to rent the machines, where should they go?” said Gharachaon’s Harjinder Singh. “Not all cooperatives have bought these machines, and the KVK in Sangrur has very few. There is no central place where we can head to for the machines to be rented.”

A new investigation also points towards corruption as a possible problem with the utilisation of the machines. In August this year, the investigation, by the state’s agricultural department, found that while official records show that of over 90,000 machines for crop residue management that were provided to farmers with subsidies between 2018 and 2022, only over 11,000 of these were in possession of the beneficiaries. It noted that this indicated a misuse of state funds to the tune of between Rs 125 crore and Rs 150 crore.

The Aam Aadmi Party has yet to present a clear and comprehensive plan to tackle the problem of stubble burning – some solutions it has presented have met with hurdles, and shown limited effectiveness so far.

Among the government’s proposals was a cash incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre to farmers who did not burn stubble. It suggested that the Centre bear 50% of this cost, and that the rest be split between Delhi and Punjab. But the Centre rejected this proposal.

Another solution the government has promoted is the use of PUSA bio decomposer capsules. These cheap capsules have to be mixed with water, along with chickpea flour, or besan, and jaggery – the mixture is then sprinkled on the stubble. It is estimated to rid the field of the stubble in around 25 days.

However, many farmers that I spoke with were either unaware of the capsule, or were sceptical about it after learning from their fellow farmers that it did not show the expected results.

Longowal’s Nirmal Singh was one such farmer, who experimented with it last year with help of the agricultural department, but told me that he would not be using it again this year. “We waited for 20 days, but did not see any difference in the stubble,” Nirmal Singh said.

Nirmal Singh of Longowal village tried using the PUSA bio decomposer capsules to clear his fields of stubble. But he found it to be an ineffective method and does not plan to use it again. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Some villages have given up stubble burning as a result of strong political support from within. Between 2014 and 2019, the village of Kanoi made 80% of its farming land free of burning. “My younger brother was elected as the sarpanch, and for him, stopping the burning was a big agenda,” explained Gurjinder Singh, a resident of Kanoi. The process saw a major turning point when Gurjinder Singh and his brother helped ensure that Kanoi was one of three villages that Punjab Agricultural University “adopted” under a project to reduce residue burning.

“Through this, the university was constantly helping us arrange discussions with the farmers of our village,” Gurjinder Singh added. “People tend to listen to what the panchayat president says.”

But Gurjinder Singh did not shy away from admitting the limitations of progress made as a result of specific individuals’ agendas. “After my brother’s term ended as a sarpanch, we noticed that many farmers went back to burning their stubble,” he said.

“From 80% of our fields being burning-free, the proportion is down to about 30-35% now. Additionally, in 2020, with many farmers participating in the farmers’ protest in Delhi, they were pressured for time and chose to burn the stubble when they returned to work on fields.”

Gurjinder Singh has also helped others manage their stubble by lending them machines. In 2018, he bought a Happy Seeder for his family’s use, and regularly lent it, along with tractors, to other residents who needed it. “We did not charge any rent, but just asked them to fill the diesel in the tractor with their own money,” he said.

Apart from him, over the years, nearly 20 other farmers in the village, who are relatively well off, have bought crop residue management machines. These farmers lend the machines to others for a fee. In Longowal, Nirmal Singh, too rents out his machines – he charges Rs 300 per hour for a mulcher and Rs 1,500 per acre on which a Happy Seeder is used.

About 40 km from Gurjinder’s home, in Lehal Kalan, farmers have been experimenting with another solution to stubble burning. They have been giving their stubble to Verbio India, a company that manufactures biogas and natural gas from agricultural residue, like stubble. Harsevak Singh gave his stubble to the company three years ago. “We cut the stubble and keep it, and the company sends their own machinery to first create bundles out of the scattered stubble, collect it and take it to the factory,” Harsevak Singh said.

But farmers also noted that they have not found the service reliable – one said there were excessive delays in collection, another that they covered a limited area, yet another that the company did not collect stubble one year, saying that it had too much moisture.

A Verbio representative explained that the company was currently in a trial phase. “During this phase we are collecting stubble from locations convenient for us,” he said. “Once we enter full operations by the end of the year, we will be covering every field within a radius of 20 km.” The representative added that the company was trying to introduce machines that could help air chopped stubble and reduce its moisture content.

Verbio has also leased land from farmers to create five “satellite locations” to store stubble. But Dharminder noted that farmers closer to these locations have complained that the stored stubble has led to an increase in rats, which then also damage crops on fields.

For farmers, the problems with various proposed solutions to stubble management are discouraging, given that their work is riddled with other uncertainties also. In Mehlan village, farmers Jagjit Singh and Chamkor Singh recounted that rains in September had caused heavy damages to paddy, and that a heatwave earlier in the year had damaged wheat yield.

“We are investing a lot of inputs in farming, but our outputs are not being able to meet the costs,” Chamkor Singh said, as he stood in his field.

He reached out and plucked a piece of paddy stalk, then broke it into two, to reveal a pink bollworm.“With unforeseen events, like the weather, already making agriculture risky, not a lot of us can afford to take risks with different alternatives to stubble burning too. We require support from the government in cash incentives, or making machines available.”

He then flicked away the pink bollworm that he had held briefly in his palm, along with the piece of paddy stalk that it had damaged.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.