Amar Singh sits in his huge courtyard at the centre of his home in the village of Atraula in Meerut. Lying in the far west part of Uttar Pradesh, this is a flourishing sugarcane belt. An important agricultural region, its demographic, economic and cultural patterns are similar to that of nearby Haryana and Rajasthan.
Singh notes that the belt witnessed the green revolution and adoption of modern farming practices in the late 1960s. Wearing a broad smile, he says that this year he has been able to harvest 50 quintals a bigha (five bighas is one acre) of sugarcane. “The cane yield per bigha was better than that was in some of the previous years when the crop had been infested with white grub, an insect pest that feeds on the roots and underground stems of the plant causing stunting of plant growth. Fortunately, this year, there has been no such setbacks so far,” says Singh.
Walking on the dusty path through the fields and jumping over irrigation drains, Amar Singh shows us the crops and the soil. The increased productivity of agriculture has had a downside over the years. “This boom in production has been propelled by the excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides that have led to the slow accumulation of toxins in the water, soil and food. Other than this, the sugar mills in the area face the problem of low recovery rates i.e., the ratio of sugar produced to the quantity of cane crushed, is poor in the area. The farmers, on the other hand, get very poor rates for the cane leading to massive discontentment,” says Singh.
Ban on setting fields on fire adds to farmers’ woes
The sugarcane crop sown last year in the area in winter had ripened and was ready for crushing by mid-October. Farmers of the country’s sugar bowl got good returns of about Rs 400 per quintal this season. The main problem facing the farmers in the region this year is not of sugar prices or unpaid cane dues like in the last year. “Farmers faced winter frost that is likely to reduce cane yields and recovery levels further. But they have a new problem this year--the ban on stubble burning,” says Raman Kant Tyagi, director of Neer Foundation, a Meerut-based NGO working on water and agriculture.
“Though paddy and wheat are also grown, western Uttar Pradesh is known mainly for sugarcane. The region has hectares of land under sugarcane cultivation. A large amount of sugarcane residues are available in the area and most of these are burnt in the field because farmers think that they are of no use,” says Vikrant Tongad, a Greater Noida-based conservationist. “The increased use of combined harvesters in the area is leaving behind stubbles that are sharp edged and tall (around 10 inches) leaving farmers with no option but to burn them. Engaging labour to remove them is too expensive,” says Tyagi.
As for the paddy and wheat cultivation in the region, wheat gets a small window period of a few days after paddy harvest and gets sown in October-November. The field has to be cleared quickly and for that, the paddy crop residue is burnt on the farm causing a spike in pollution levels. This leads to a blanket of smog over north India.
“Problems on account of burning have been well documented and highlighted globally for over a decade, including through imagery taken by NASA,” says Dr I.P. Abrol, an eminent soil scientist and former deputy director general of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research.
Is banning stubble burning a solution?
Tongad had moved the National Green Tribunal against Environment Pollution (Prevention Control) Authority & Others regarding air pollution due to stubble burning. The green court, in its order dated November 16, 2017, warned Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan that stubble burning has to be stopped at any cost. It even threatened to stop the payment of salaries of government officials if these states failed to come up with an action plan to prevent stubble burning, which triggers heavy pollution in the Delhi-NCR sector.
The Delhi high court too, after hearing a public interest litigation on stubble burning, noted that it is a cause for respiratory ailments. A stern warning was issued to the four north Indian states and Delhi to not burn crop stubble after harvesting. Ravi Sharma, a farmer from Bulandshahar says that in this harvest season, there are strict instructions from the district magistrate to the farmers to not burn crop residue. Authorities have stated that a heavy penalty will be imposed on those who violate the rule. Farmers are under the fear of becoming defaulters against whom coercive action can be taken,” says Tyagi.
No-till agriculture as an option
“From the perspective of an agricultural scientist, the best option lies in retaining the crop residues on the soil and seeding the next crop, i.e. wheat, without tilling the soil, which is no-till farming. Poor health of the soil has emerged globally as the most limiting factor in achieving goals of sustainable agriculture, food and nutritional security, efficient water use, biodiversity conservation, etc. Problems in India are particularly acute. Over the past decades, promotion efforts by development agencies and farmers' efforts have contributed to widespread adoption of no-till farming approaches wherein crop residues are left in the field to keep the soil covered. Globally, more than 100 million ha are farmed adopting no-tillage as per the Food and Agriculture Organization “(of the United Nations),” says Dr Abrol.
“These practices have multiple benefits. They improve organic matter content of soil--a basic feature that imparts good health to soil, improve the capacity of the soil to absorb, retain and supply stored water to crops and recharge ground aquifers, improve water quality, enhance the efficiency of fertilisers, improve biological activity in soils and obtain sustained high crop yields. Healthy soils are an integral part of the ecosystem. Efforts to promote no-till farming practices have met with limited success. Availability of appropriate farm equipment and lack of awareness among farmers is a reason,” adds Dr Abrol.
Farmers need incentives to shift from stubble burning
Tongad says, “There is a need to provide assistance to farmers to encourage them to not burn crop residue and help them shift to other options. The government should work towards it. The orders of the NGT should be followed here. Farmers can be told to plough their fields and water them. The stubble will decompose after some days and will turn into manure. This way, farmers can save the environment from pollution and improve their soil fertility. But the government is ignoring this.”
Tyagi says that incentives and infrastructural facilities ought to be provided to prevent farmers from burning crop residue in a bid to check air pollution. One option has already been suggested by the green court--to encourage National Thermal Power Corporation to set up a few biomass power units in the area that can purchase crop residue from farmers. The government needs to take steps to decide on the compensation to be provided to farmers for procuring their agricultural residues.
“Several options have been suggested to tackle the problem but with little real success. In Punjab, efforts were made to generate electricity from crop residues by setting up a few plants. The approach has not succeeded, largely on account of huge transportation costs and overall cost ineffectiveness. Farmers need cost effective options to shift away from the practice,” says Dr Abrol.
Tongad suggests that paddy stubble left behind can be utilised as fodder for animals. Farmers can also be encouraged to convert crop residue to biofertiliser.
Preparing manure out of crop stubble
The practice of stubble burning in western Uttar Pradesh is somewhat different from Punjab and Haryana. A cost effective innovative model developed by Neer Foundation for composting, called LR compost has been approved by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Agriculture and Cooperation and the organic farming cell. The United Nations Development Programme has been supporting farmers in 50 villages of Meerut to take up this alternate practice to control and check biomass and crop residue burning in the open fields. The idea is to check the burning practice of sugarcane leaves and paddy waste that can instead provide the farmers with rich organic manure for improvement in field soil, human health and environment. The project is helping farmers save the expenses of buying chemicals as compost, which is expected to increase the soil quality. This will help to reduce the cost of the pit by at least 10-20 percent.
Rajendar Singh, a resident of Narangpur village, says, “In 20 days, organic fertiliser is ready. All one needs is a compost pit. After digging the pit, farmers fill it with cow dung, sugarcane leaves, paddy waste, green grass and field soil in four-inch thick layer one by one, repeating till the height is nearly one metre. Finally, water is added to the contents.”
In just one year, farmers prevented 45,000 kg of carbon dioxide from one acre of farming area from releasing into the atmosphere,” says Tyagi.
Both these methods not only provide a solution to stop the practice of burning sugarcane leaves and paddy waste but also provide the farmers with rich organic manure that will improve field soil, human health as well as the environment. The government needs to look seriously into these solutions.