National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) images of the past ten days show large parts of India are dotted with fires, stretching across Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and even some southern states. In sweltering summer, these fires are intensifying heat and causing black carbon (a component of soot with high global warming effect) pollution.
Some of these dots may be forest fires but Hiren Jethva, research scientist at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, says fires in central India may be mostly crop fires as forest fires are usually uncontrolled and, therefore, produce more smoke and haze.
Agricultural scientists are linking the massive rise in the incidence of crop fires in recent years to the dependence of farmers on combine harvesters, which leave a short stubble behind. The practice of crop stubble burning is not limited to the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, where the problem is rampant.
While burning of paddy stubble has been a common practice among farmers since it is unsuitable as fodder, increasing incidence of wheat stubble burning is a relatively new trend. States with crop fires seen in Nasa maps have a dominant rice-wheat cropping system. There are two choices of harvesting for farmers—manual or by combine harvester. But with acute shortage of labour, combine harvesters are turning out to be the quickest and cheapest mode of harvesting and preparing the soil for paddy.
“I suspect that the use of combine harvesters is increasing across the country. During my research, I found that the single most important determinant of burning crop residue is the use of combine harvesters. Farmers just find it cheaper to burn residue than to clear it manually by employing labour. I also suspect that farmers are finding it harder to maintain animals or that fodder practices have changed, leading to farmers burning off even wheat residue. But this requires to be backed by research,” says Ridhima Gupta, Indian School of Business (ISB) researcher, who studied the economics of farm fires in Punjab. During her research, she found that using manual labour is twice as expensive as using a harvester.
According to Ridhima, crop stubble burning accounts for nearly 14 per cent of the country’s black carbon emissions.
The highest number of fires is being seen in MP. About 10 farmers have already been detained this year in Sehore for burning wheat stubble that spread fire to nearby farms. Earlier in April, flames from stubble fire spread on almost 1,500 ha in Harda and Betul districts. A woman in the state died after catching fire in a farm.
State’s junior agriculture minister Balkrishna Patidar tells TOI, “We have been asking farmers to not burn crop residue as it is harmful not only for themselves, but also for the soil and environment. Still, the practice continues.”
There is no official data linking increase in combine harvester use with crop fires. But the Economic Survey 2018 highlights how farm mechanisation has increased tremendously. In 1960-61, about 93 per cent of farm power was from animate sources, which has reduced to 10 per cent now. Mechanical and electrical sources have increased from 7 per cent to 90 per cent.
“Multiple cropping and shortened cropping intervals leave little time to prepare for the next crop. It is too expensive to hire labour to clear stubble left behind by harvesters. Rural economy cannot absorb straw anymore for roofing of houses or granaries. Low commercial and economic value coupled with high costs of processing of residue reduce its usefulness for farmers. Burning it is cheaper and easier,” adds Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
The Centre has allocated Rs 1,140.30 crore for a sub-mission on agriculture mechanisation in this year’s Union budget, substantially hiking the funds from Rs 525 crore in 2017-18. This is mainly to deal with crop stubble burning in NCR states, where the practice is one of the major reasons for severe air pollution.
“There should be ergonomic ways of managing stubble which will have to be supported by the government. In summer, fire spreads quickly, often burning the harvest itself and causing fire accidents,” explains GV Ramajaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
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