Unstoppable Straw Burning

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Straw is an agricultural by-product; the dry stalks of cereal plants, after the grain and chaff have been removed. Straw makes up about half of the yield of cereal crops such as barley, oats, rice, rye and wheat. It has many uses, including fuel, livestock bedding and fodder, thatching and basket-making. The major problem is with the rice straw and not much with other straws. Late September through October of each year, pollution problem due to rice straw burning in Haryana and Punjab at large scale is always a bone of contention to common people not only in these states but also in the adjoining areas up to NCR Delhi. As per estimates, Punjab produces approximately 19-20 million tonnes of paddy straw and about 20 million tonnes of wheat straw and about 85-90 per cent of this paddy straw is burnt in the field.

Burning of agricultural biomass residue, or Crop Residue Burning (CRB) has been identified as a major health hazard. In addition to causing exposure to extremely high levels of Particulate Matter concentration to people in the immediate vicinity, it is also a major regional source of pollution, contributing between 12 and 60 per cent of PM concentrations as per various source apportionment studies. In addition, it causes loss of vital components such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and potassium from the topsoil layer, making the land less fertile and unviable for agriculture in the long run. With best and sincere efforts at the central and state government levels, supreme court ruling, law and order enforcements, straw burning is going on unstoppable.   Efforts being made so far to reduce crop residue burning like: banning crop residue burning, detection and prevention, creating a market for crop residue, outreach and public awareness campaigns, subsidy on agri-implements, crop diversification, establishments of straw-based industries locally, subsidy provision etc. appear futile in terms of making people to stop from burning straw.  We need to understand why the farmers burn stubble and then deal with the basic problem.

Misconceptions

  1. It is inappropriate to say that people are not environmental conscious and efforts should be to make them so. People are very much aware of the environmental problems being caused by straw burning as they themselves are the immediate sufferers of these effects.
  2. It is also not right to say that farmers are not technology savvy. Farmers are ready to adopt any new technology to get rid of straw avoiding its unwanted burning.
  3. Concept about its use as a fodder for a number of animals is also not misconceived or mis-perceived. It is such food which not all animals can digest easily.  Most of them can face digestive problems.  At present, taking risk of animal’s health by people is beyond believing.
  4. It is hypothetical to demand or say that after compensation for machinery/implements purchase farmers will stop stubble burning because farmers those who are well affordable are mostly going for the practice of stubble burning. One-time or regular subsidies to farmers cannot guarantee to stop stubble burning

Production and consumption of straw

  1. Cultivation of rice and thus, production of straw was in low volume in earlier days and it was used at every house hold level in various applications (like fodder, fuel and material of household items of daily use).
  2. Straw from other crops like sugar cane, cotton, jawar and bajra was happily used as a fuel source of fuel when LPG was not a part of kitchen.
  3. Hard working farmers were putting many hours daily in agriculture works like collecting and storing straw and then making useful applications.
  4.  Different types of animals (like bullocks, cows, horses, camels etc.) at house used to consume straw as fodder. 

Present scenario

  1. Foremost reason is that agriculture is no more taken as a serious, effective and lucrative profession by present generation. Farmers at any level are continuing doing agriculture just to keep their land holdings in operational 
  2. Cultivation of rice is taken as a less labor intensive crop with growing use of pesticides & weedicides and giving more production 
  3. Non-availability of household people to be engaged in agriculture works due to growing disinterest in agriculture activities as well as declining overall potential towards hard work in present generation
  4. Unavailability of costly agriculture labor due to many reasons like implementation of MANREGA (less labor intensive works), industrialization, lack of interest of people towards highly laborious/difficult agriculture work
  5. Number of animals per household has reduced to a great extent and main animal remaining is buffalos which are sensitive (with less digestion capacity)  towards straw as a fodder  
  6. Need of quick disposal of agriculture end products (wastes) in order to make agriculture fields ready for next crop
  7. Lack of availability of user-friendly and cost effective technological methods to dispose straw.

Points to ponder

  1. We need diversification of crops. Rice cultivation has to be replaced with other market oriented crops which do not result in a end product at the scale of straw
  2. Harvester should be designed in a way that they leave only 2-3cm of paddy stalk on the field instead of present 6-10cm
  3.  Availability of agriculture labor at nominal costs as the removal of the paddy stalk that remains on the field is a labour-intensive process
  4. Landfills and cut & mixing stubble with soil are not the feasible solutions
  5. Straw based applications like fuel in biomass-based power plants, for the preparation of bio-fuels, organic fertilizers and in paper and cardboard making industries should be developed at a large scale
  6. The strategy, broadly, is to assign a real economic and commercial value to the agricultural residue and making burning it an economic loss to the farmer

Final words

However, being environmental conscious and law abiding citizens, burning of straw only seems a feasible, easy, and cost effective method to farmers and that is why straw burning is going unstoppable.  To confront the legal consequences and law & order situations, farmer’s political bodies and farmers in numbers are coming together to save defaulting farmers. Need is to look into the pros and cons of the menace of straw burning and some solutions attractive to farmers should be given to them instead of giving incentives or imposing IPC 144 or penalties or arresting the farmers or finally issuing shoot at sight orders. These all methods have already proved unproductive and farmers are not stopping themselves from burning of straw.  Farmers should be given user-friendly, cost-effective and lucrative options to get rid of this (straw) unused and thus unwanted agriculture end produce. People or industries at local level have to be trained and engaged to develop technologies or products making use of straw.  Technologies towards collection, bundling and transportation have to made available to farmers by the industries based on the use of straw.

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