Crop stubble burning has so far attracted concern mainly in the context of Punjab and nearby areas. Its most widely discussed impact has related to increase in air pollution in Delhi and some other nearby cities.
However what is not often realized is that in a more quiet way this is also spreading in several other parts of the country as well. The extent of its spread may be much lesser than in the context of Punjab, but the trend has certainly started, more visible on the farms of bigger landowners.
The most widely pervasive causative factor appears to be the mechanization of crop harvesting, followed by changes in crop intensity and cropping patterns. Wherever harvesting has been mechanized using combine harvesters, it appears that stubble burning too follows, and if changes in crop intensity and cropping patterns are also in a similar direction, then the possibilities of stubble burning increase all the more.
In the vast Bundelkhand region spread over 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, for instance, stubble burning has already spread to several villages. Here it can be seen in many places that wherever combine harvesters, often brought all the way from Punjab and nearby areas, are reaching, this is generally followed by stubble burning as well. Recent discussions with several leading social activists of this region who travel frequently in rural areas revealed that there is already much concern regarding this.
Gaya Prasad Gopal, one of the most senior social activists of Bundelkhand and founder of ABSSS oganization, says, “This is taking place in the context of wheat as well as rice crops. In several villages big clouds of smoke present a very distressing scene. This will harm soil greatly and already this has contributed a lot to fodder shortage.”
Raja Bhaiya, founder of Vidyadham Samiti organization says, “All the micro-organisms of soil are killed when crops are burnt time and again. When crops, both wheat and rice, are harvested using combine harvesters, very little fodder is left as crop residue. Bhusa ( crop residue fodder) rates are going up as never before and this mechanization of harvesting is an important reason of this.”
Manoj Tiwari, Chairperson of Mukund Foundation, says, “This trend has not yet spread very widely in Bundelkhand, but yes, it is there and it is increasing gradually. The mechanization of harvesting work is also related to breakdown of social ties in villages. Workers are going more and more to distant places like Delhi to be employed there despite several problems and uncertainties faced by migrant workers, but they are less inclined to work in their own villages. Hence farmers particularly the bigger landowners are resorting more to combine harvesters. This in turn leads to stubbles remaining in farms after harvesting and fires being started to take care of them. Of course it is very harmful and it is better to make efforts to check this spread now before this problem becomes too serious and widespread.”
Abhishek Mishra, founder of Arunodya Sansthaan, says, “If harvesting is done manually and workers know this in advance that work will be available within village or very close to it, then they will like to stay behind for work as harvesting can bring them good wages locally. This is very important as adverse results of mechanized harvesting can already be seen. Today bhusa is selling for Rs. 1600 per quintal. So it becomes difficult to fed cattle and as they are let loose, the farmer’s livelihood suffers badly. Big farmers may find mechanized farming cost effective, but at a social level this is harmful, particularly for soil health. The administration also wants to discourage this, organizations like ours also spread the word, but a bigger effort is needed. I have noticed that mechanized harvesting is spreading not just to wheat and rice, but in a smaller way even to gram.”
Hence clearly there are early signs of a problem that if not checked can easily become much bigger within a few years. Some aspects of the problem are quite serious. It is not confined to rice in Bundelkhand but is perhaps most widespread in some of the villages of this region in the context of wheat and in a smaller way is spreading to other crops as well. Secondly, all this is happening in a region which is known as a region of acute poverty for the landless in particular. But the social disintegration, to a substantial extent cause by discriminative and exploitative policies against dalits, has become so serious that instead of dalit ( or other) landless farmworkers’ need for employment being utilized at the harvesting time , when farm work wages tend to be at their highest level, the harvesting of crop is being mechanized and the worker becomes more and more of a migrant worker, at a time when so many risks and uncertainties are associated with the work of migrant laborers.
What is more, these trends are not confined to Bundelkhand either. Shiraz Wazih, founder of Gorakhpur Environment Action Group, says—“In the parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh where we work, mechanization of harvesting work has been frequently followed by stubble burning in the case of wheat crop. The administration has tried to stop this, but it has continued at a certain level. This is definitely very harmful for soil.”
Clearly there is a strong need for checking the further spread of such practices of stubble burning, as well as the causes which lead to their spread. This is best achieved with the close involvement of local communities. The serious harm caused to soil health by stubble burning should be widely publicized. The loss of dry fodder has been reduced somewhat by new harvesting machines, but still it is an important factor at a time of rising price of dry fodder. The need to provide more employment to landless workers is also a social factor that should be brought into this discourse. Even if some landowners can immediately save some cash by using machinery for harvesting, should they not worry about the other adverse factors? There should be wider sensitization regarding wider social costs (and not just individual costs) as well as longer-term considerations (not just short-term ones).
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.