On the brighter side of stubble burning

Stubble burning is one of the major pollution-causing issues faced by Delhi and neighboring cities, which has no fixed solution till now. Although the number of stubble-burning cases has drastically declined after several measures taken by both Central and State governments, it is still one of the crucial issues that need to be addressed on priority.

Is it possible to address this issue for good? IBT dived deep into the heaps of paddy straw and explored the root cause, challenges, possible solutions and how it can be converted into opportunity. 

Stubble burning_TPCI

Image Source: pexels

If you are a resident of Delhi or neighbouring areas, it has become an annual routine to withstand the sudden surge in pollution during the months of September-November. Stubble (parali) burning, is among the key contributors to this problem, and is a common practice among farmers, where they remove agricultural waste from their fields. This is done by setting residues on fire after harvesting grains like paddy, wheat etc. in order to prepare the land for the next round of seeding. The practice enables farmers to sow two types of crops on the same land to increase their production and hence income. It is mostly done for rotation between wheat and rice crops.

The seemingly unavoidable practice is one of the major environmental concerns faced by Delhi NCR and northern states like Punjab and Haryana. To keep a check on stubble-burning practice, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been prescribing fines of ₹ 2,500 to ₹ 5,000, ₹ 7,500 and ₹ 15,000 on farmers holding land above 10 acres.

Standard ISRO Protocol releases figures for monitoring paddy crop residue burning events. According to their data, the total paddy crop residue burning event during the period September-November 2022 in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and NCR Districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rajasthan has come down to 53,792 from 78,550 in 2021, recording a fall of 31.5%. However, farmers have often complained that they are left with no alternative, even if they understand the harmful effects and do not want to go against the law.

The high cost of fuel and fertilizers has made it difficult for many farmers to afford to remove their stubble. The cost of clearing stubble using a combined harvester can be as much as Rs 2,500-3,000 per acre, and manual clearing is even more expensive.

The government has taken some steps to address this issue, such as providing financial incentives for farmers to adopt alternative methods of stubble removal. However, these incentives have not been enough to make a significant difference. The government has also promoted briquetting or the creation of straw bricks or pellets from stubble, but there is not enough infrastructure in place to support this industry.

Initiatives Taken by the Government 

To combat the effects of stubble burning, both central and state governments have introduced several solutions over time, some of which are:

  1. Pusa Decomposer: Developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the decomposer decomposes stubble within 20-25 days after spraying and turns it into manure, further improving the soil quality. One packet of four capsules of Pusa decomposer, costing Rs 20, can be used to make 25 litres of solutions which can be used in one hectare (2.5 acres) of land.
  2. Under the scheme “Promotion of Agricultural Mechanization for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi”, financial assistance at 50% of the cost of machinery is provided to the farmers for the purchase of crop residue management machinery.
  3. Under the ‘waste to energy mission’, the government has installed Biogas plants which can curb crop burning and prevent pollution, as they generate bio-gas by utilizing crop waste such as rice straw through bio-methanation technology.
  4. The Delhi government has undertaken several measures to curb the air pollution caused due to stubble burning which include cracker-free Diwali, air pollution masks, odd-even policy and encouraging carpooling etc.
  5. Under its CRM scheme, the Central Government has released more than ₹ 3,062 crores to the Government of Punjab, NCR State Governments and GNCTD during the five-year period from 2018-2023 to manage the stubble burning in the region effectively. Out of the total releases, more than ₹ 1,426 crores have been released to the State Government of Punjab.

A zero sum game? Not if…

Although the issue seems to be unavoidable for farmers, there are several business opportunities that could emerge out of crop residues, which would also address the environmental catastrophe. Some of them are as below:

  1. Crop residues can be used for mushroom cultivation if the paddy straw is mixed with wheat straw in equal quantities, since paddy straw alone does not provide good physical structure to compost.
  2. Residue can be used as Biofuel. Conversion of ligno-cellulosic biomass into alcohol is of immense importance as ethanol can either be blended with gasoline as a fuel extender and octane enhancing agent or used as a neat fuel in internal combustion engines.
  3. Upcycling of crop residues for roofing, using straw-clay mixture to make bricks and walls are some of the conventional sustainable solutions.
  4. The residues can also be incorporated in soil as they are beneficial in recycling nutrients. Although it leads to temporary immobilization of nutrients, addition of extra nitrogenous fertilizer could help correct the high C:N ratio at the time of residue incorporation.
  5. Residue retention on the surface of soil could be a better option for conservation of soil and soil moisture by avoiding evaporation. It also reduces the germination of weeds and helps build soil microbial population resulting in increased soil organic carbon.
  6. Additionally, crop residues can be used as fuel for cooking and lighting since they are a cheap source of fuel and beneficial to low income families.

Recently, a Norwegian Climate Investment Fund operated by Norfund has invested Rs 500 crore to Indian Solar and Agricultural Waste Management company SAEL. The investment is expected to help reduce more than 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and enhance air quality by banning stubble burning.

The goal is to add 100MW of new biomass and 400 MW of new solar capacity per year to support company’s target to increase its 600 MW portfolio to 3 GW over the next five years. SAEL has created a waste-to-energy projects under commercial model which enables crop leftovers to be used as fuel. Currently, more than 20 projects in the solar and agri-waste to energy sectors are currently operational or under construction at SAEL.

Going forward, the government needs to encourage investments to support the briquetting industry, recycling and upcycling of crop residues. This includes building factories to produce the machines needed to make by products and briquettes as well as creating markets for the briquettes. Financial incentives to farmers to adopt different sustainable methods and proper education about the benefits of using stubble to generate income will be pivotal. These steps will go a long way towards controlling stubble burning and converting it into an economical opportunity.

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