IN the process of producing more foodgrains, there has been corresponding and linear increase in biomass production in the country. Much of this biomass turns up as agricultural crop residue (CR) and is left to go waste, though agricultural organic residue is not waste but wealth. Some surveys estimate a higher quantity, but according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, on an average, more than 500 MT (million tonnes) of CR is generated every year — from rice (122 MT), wheat (100 MT), maize (71 MT), millets (26 MT), sugarcane (141 MT), fibre crops (8 MT) and pulses (28 MT). Uttar Pradesh (60 MT), Punjab (51 MT) and Maharashtra (46 MT) are major CR-generating states. Out of 140 MT surplus CR, 92 MT (18%) is burnt, whereas the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that it is over 25% of the total CR which is burnt in India, most of which is in UP, Punjab, Maharashtra and Haryana. With machine harvesting, a large quantity of CR is left in the field, the clearing of which becomes a labour-intensive operation, needed to be completed within a short time frame between the harvesting of the ripened crop and the sowing of the next crop. The problem has become more severe after the promulgation of the Preservation of Subsoil Water Acts by Punjab and Haryana governments in 2009, prohibiting the transplanting of rice seedlings before June 10, squeezing the time period to about three weeks only to complete rice harvesting, managing a huge quantity of leftover straw in the field and the sowing of wheat.

As estimated by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), about 57.7 MT of surplus CR is expected to be utilised under ex situ management options under various government policies. The Punjab Government’s policy on renewable sources of energy, formulated in 2012, was set to achieve a capacity target of 600 MW from biomass and 500 MW from cogeneration (both bagasse and non-bagasse) within 10 years. However, only seven power projects have been commissioned so far with far less use of paddy straw as well as power generation. The Haryana government’s bio-energy policy, brought out in 2018, planned to achieve a target of 150 MW biomass-based power generation within four years; it, too, is far away from achieving its target.

Besides energy generation, there is a need to accelerate the implementation of other measures like in situ management, biochar making, composting, addressing limitations of assured market of the end products and reducing additional cost incurred on logistics and transportation of material to longer distances. The procedures for carrying out in situ CR management need special machinery and equipment which is normally beyond the capacity to procure as well as short of full utility for the farmers with small holdings. Despite hefty subsidies, the main concern of the farmers is investment on such machines that can be used only once during the season rather than the others required to be used round the year. Hence, the availability of this machinery and equipment through cooperatives, farmer producer companies, groups of farmers, village panchayats by subletting/renting at affordable rates, can be a game-changer to address the burning issue of CR management. The development of low-cost, affordable machinery is the need of the hour.

In March 2018, the Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs approved Rs 1,151.80 crore for the ‘promotion of agricultural mechanisation for in situ management of CR in states falling in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Rajasthan’ to sensitise farmers with different variants of required farm machineries. However, during the same year, of the total paddy straw residue, about 17% in Haryana and 50% in Punjab was burnt, indicating low implementation of the scheme. Turbo happy seeder and harvester combine fitted with super straw management system are the primary machines for in situ management of paddy straw residue. As per studies, including one by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the available machines are not sufficient to manage the existing CR within the limited intervening time between paddy harvesting and the sowing of wheat.

The interventions for successful management of CR and eliminating its burning are largely disintegrated. Under such a situation, reportedly even machinery worth Rs 650 crore could not douse farm fires in Punjab in 2019, according to a news report, and 76,626 machines given to Punjab by the Centre over three years have not produced the desired results. In the small-scale Indian farming system, the resource-poor farmers individually lack capacity and means; they should be supported in establishing an organised network, associations and community organisations for establishing services to manage CR. Offering services like collecting and transferring CR from the fields to the places of its utilisation as raw material and renting the machinery and equipment by government agencies should be centric to such arrangements operating at the doorstep of the framers. There should be an enabling system for efficient and effective CR collection, aggregation and viable models for the CR supply chain for the establishments involved in CR valorisation.

The new law passed by Parliament in the recent monsoon session says that the Commission on Air Quality Management “may impose and collect environmental compensation from farmers causing air pollution by stubble burning.” However, penalising CR burning is an erroneous application of the ‘polluter pays’ notion because this pollution is not the outcome of any industrial or business venture. It’s better to dispense with it, considering the complexities of the problems and compulsions of the farmers who go for it. It is important to extend a helping hand and run awareness campaigns for technical and economical empowerment of people involved in farming activities.

More importantly, CR management must not be viewed as an issue under the domain of the agriculture sector only but related to other sectors as well, hence requiring integrated approaches for devising and implementing practical solutions. Considering crop residue as a commodity and a useful asset, instead of waste, will result in its successful and beneficial management. However, due to its large volume, the capacities to manage it need to be scaled up.

Source: 07 September, 2021, The Tribune