It is that time of the year. Delhi’s air is becoming poisonous and, once again, Punjab’s farmers burning paddy straw are being blamed for it. But few bother to ask why these farmers dispose of their crop residue in such a polluting way even though the risk to their own health is obvious. The short answer: most do not have much of a choice.

A study conducted by Indian and Swiss researchers from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Kheti Virasat Mission and Ranas Mosler in four districts of Punjab between June and October found that the farmers are willing to stop burning straw if they can manage it otherwise.

The most common reasons for burning paddy straw, the study found, include insufficient time for field preparation between harvesting and sowing, the lack of a minimum support price for crops other than rice and wheat, a labour shortage, a lack of access to suitable machinery and the absence of industries that could utilise straw.

The study, which covered 710 farmers, found that 56% of them completely or partially burn paddy straw. While income does not seem to determine whether a farmer burns straw or not, two-thirds of the burners are indebted compared to only half of the non-burners. Moreover, the non-burners are more confident about managing residue without burning, with the availability of machinery at the village level probably an important factor influencing their perceived confidence.

The study also found other challenges in managing straw that compel the farmers to burn it. Since many farmers employ combine harvesters that reap, thresh and winnow paddy at one go, they are left with standing stubble as well as loose straw. They have been encouraged to adopt incorporation – plowing the crop residue back into the soil – as a sustainable solution for straw management. But incorporation of loose straw with standing stubble poses its own problem: it creates a microenvironment that is susceptible to pathogen infection. But they can incorporate standing stubble, one of the farmers surveyed said, if the government provides them machinery that removes the loose straw.

Varying regional conditions also affect the management of straw. In some parts of Muktsar district, for example, the water table is as high as 1.5 feet. The wetter soil makes it harder for the incorporated residue to decompose, thereby increasing the field’s susceptibility to infection. For now, therefore, burning paddy straw before sowing wheat is the only way to dry the farms sufficiently to ensure a decent yield. This partly explains the belief among many farmers that burning straw is good for the soil.

In Muktsar, some farmers reported buying soil and laying it on their fields to address the wetness. “It worked for two years and I had a good yield,” said a farmer. “Now the soil is wet again and I will need to add more if I want a good yield.”

Few options

The preferred choice of straw management among Punjab’s farmers is baling, which is the most common practice globally as well. The use of paddy straw for mulching, composting, as fodder or animal bedding is limited. Feeding it to cattle reduces their milk yield, the farmers said, as does using it for bedding since it causes udder infections. Composting paddy straw requires a vast area, considerable labour and long processing times, and is thus not a viable option for most farmers.

There are only a handful of biomass and cardboard-making plants that source straw bales; many more are needed to process the nearly 19 million tonnes of paddy straw produced every year. “I made bales last year but no one came to pick them up,” said another farmer. “I had no choice but to set them on fire at the last minute.”

Further analysis of the data gathered by the researchers will likely shed greater light on what could motivate the farmers against burning straw. This, in turn, could prove helpful in designing effective interventions against residue burning.

Punjab’s farmers face a series of challenges in managing straw, so a one-size-fits-all intervention will not work. Regional variables and the specific needs of the farmers, depending on their landholdings, will have to be considered while designing policy interventions. Apart from providing sufficient suitable machinery, the government should consider direct financial support to the farmers to supplement their input costs for straw management. In the long run, they should be encouraged to move away from the rice-wheat double cropping pattern to relay cropping of pulses in paddy fields – as is done in coastal Andhra Pradesh.

While the government needs to design effective policy interventions, agricultural cooperatives, farmer unions, even individual farmers have to work collectively to ensure such policies are successfully implemented. For this major environmental and health challenge affects us all – but, first and foremost, the farmer. As one farmer put it, “Farmers are the first to be affected by the pollution. Where is the concern for our health?”

Banalata (Bono) Sen is an environmental health consultant. She led the study on which this article is based.