Technology Solves India’s Stubble Burning Problem


India is gasping for breath—and farmers are receiving an unfair amount of the blame.

The Associated Press recently painted a picture of the problem in New Delhi: “Sky obscured by thick, gray smog. Monuments and high-rise buildings swallowed by a blanket of haze. People are struggling to breathe.”

The air quality in our capital city is so poor that the government has ordered schools and construction sites to shut down. Workers in public offices are told to stay home. Harsher lockdowns could arrive soon.

The cause of this poor air quality, according to many news accounts, is agriculture—and in particular, the practice of farmers who set fire to their crop stubble.

“A vocal minority of rich farmers from one state is burning the lungs of northern India,” complains a newspaper columnist.

This blaming of farmers has gotten out of hand—and many people are starting to notice. “Now it has become a fashion to bash the farmers,” said Surya Kant, a justice on India’s Supreme Court.

It’s time to set the record straight on Indian farmers and stubble burning. We must go beyond the finger pointing and propose constructive solutions.

I’m a third-generation farmer in Punjab, where I grow rice, wheat, potatoes, and other crops. As with so many people in northern India, we suffer from poor air quality in my state.

Malwinder Singh Malhi holds a handful of wheat straw.

I don’t burn stubble, but I understand why many farmers do. The time between harvesting rice and sowing wheat is short. Farmers must move from crop to crop quickly. One of the fastest and most efficient ways to prepare a rice paddy for a wheat planting is to burn away the residue left over from a rice harvest.

When many farmers do this at the same time, their fires harm air quality. It happens every year, and every year people grumble about farmers.

I’m happy to admit that stubble burning is a problem. But we must keep things in perspective so constructive and effective solutions to India’s poor air quality can be found.

It turns out that stubble burning accounts for only 4 percent of New Delhi’s air pollution. When this fact recently appeared in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud reacted with surprise: “The cat is out of the bag,” he said. “We are targeting something which is totally insignificant.”

brown concrete tower under blue sky during daytimeThe biggest polluters have nothing to do with agriculture. Factory smokestacks, power generators, and vehicle tailpipes produce the vast majority of India’s smog. Even firecrackers play a part. Lighting them is a popular pastime in New Delhi.

Farmers have become an easy target. The critics take aim at them, distract us from the real problem and prevent us from thinking about possible solutions.

It is foolish to expect stubble burning to disappear without focusing on options for the farmers to use. There is an opportunity for the government, farmers and universities to work together to provide Information that will support adoption of new technologies which have the potential to help farmers shift away from this method.

Rather than shout at farmers for burning stubble, we should persuade them to consider alternatives, so they can reduce their 4-percent contribution to India’s air-quality dilemma.

Enterprising farmers can turn crop stubble into cattle feed, biomass energy, compost, packing material, fuel, paper, and more. In rural areas, it can become a roofing material. It even can help with mushroom cultivation.

Farmers also can take up a direct-seeding technique that I’ve used on my farm for several years. Instead of transplanting seedlings from the nursery, we establish our rice crop from seeds sown directly in the field. With a tractor, we drill seeds directly into the soil.

A row of Happy Seeders.

When the rice is ready to harvest, we use an implement called the “happy seeder” that lifts and cuts the paddy straw and sows the wheat seed at the same time. The cut straw becomes a mulch that not only helps the wheat to grow but protects the organic qualities of the soil, such as the helpful micro-organisms and insects that keep our fields fertile and fend off harmful pests.

We don’t need to burn anything.

The benefits of adopting this technology are many. We save time. We save fuel and labor costs. The process helps us controls weeds. When stubble is burned, important nutrients are lost from the soil. With the Happy Seeder, we are able to keep those nutrients for the benefit of the next crop.

This is the way forward for India and its farmers: encouragement and innovation, rather than spitefulness and restriction.

I look forward to the day when Indians can enjoy cleaner air—and also a time when we regard farmers as partners who have a stake in helping us solve problems.

Malwinder Singh Malhi

Malwinder Singh Malhi

Third generation farmer growing rice, wheat, potatoes, peas and fodder crops of oats, rye grass and mustard on their 25-acre family farm in Punjab State. He's a strong supporter of GM and hybrid crops. Has over 30 years of experience working with farmers on the transfer of agricultural technologies to increase productivity.

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