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Use of smart machinery can check stubble burning, farm experts suggest

IANS | New Delhi |

If the farmers of Punjab and Haryana were to adopt smart techniques and use appropriate machinery, say experts, they won’t hog the headlines every winter for the wrong reasons — causing smog in the national capital because of stubble-burning.

The Borlaug Institute of South Asia (BISA), a non-profit set up in 2011 to harness the latest technology in agriculture to improve farm productivity, has claimed to have reduced the volume of agricultural residue burning in some villages it has selected for smart farming in the last few years.

One of the successful examples is a cluster of villages in Haryana’s Karnal district, where stubble-burning has shrunk to just 20 per cent of the cultivated land, local farmers said.

Vikas Chaudhary, who cultivates 35 acres of land in Taraori, said this year paddy straw was burnt on just 400-500 acres of the total 2,400 acres of agricultural land in the village.

He said BISA has suggested an alternative in the form of a new machine — a Happy Seeder — which allows effective seeding without removing the straw residue.

Conceived by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Happy Seeder is like any Zero Till Machine with the additional feature of a chopper that clears the loose straw which creates problems in sowing.

BISA is a collaborative effort involving the El Batan, Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Earlier, farmers would cut the entire crop while reaping under conventional methods, leaving very little straw on the field.

However, the advent of combine harvesters — machines that combine the three separate operations of reaping, threshing and winnowing into one process — the magnitude of straw burning has increased since it cuts just the spike of paddy plants, leaving stems intact.

In the past few years, farmers have become accustomed to using Rotavators — soil tilling machine — before sowing seeds.

Since Rotavators cannot work unless the agriculture residue is cleared, farmers have no option but to set the stubble on fire as manual removal is not a viable option owing to the huge cost involved and small time window to cultivate winter crops such as wheat, said M.L. Jat, Principal Scientist with the CIMMYT.

“In our smart farming villages, we have introduced Happy Seeder machines which facilitate seed sowing though there is stubble in the field. It retains soil fertility as well,” Jat said.

“And the results are positive. Not just the output has remained unaffected, but input cost has gone down as well. We have found that stubble provided nutrients to soil, minimising the requirement of fertiliser.”

Manoj Munjal, who cultivates 125 acres of land in Taraori, said he has not burnt stubble on a single inch of his fields in last five-six years and that stubble-burning in the area can be reduced to zero if governments encourage the use of Happy Seeder by offering a huge subsidy.

There is one more cluster in Punjab’s Ludhiana district, where farmers have started taking steps to free their fields from burning.

Local farmers said they did not derive any pleasure from seeing the people of Delhi being choked up in smog but they did not have any other option.

“We are painted as villains for the pollution in Delhi. However, we also suffer due to stubble farming. Our village had almost become a gas chamber on November 14. But we are helpless,” said Jagdev Singh, a farmer from Nurpur village.

The Nurpur Bet Agriculture Multipurpose Cooperative Society provides agricultural machinery and equipment to farmers from six neighbouring villages as they cannot afford purchasing them.

Its Secretary, Balkir Singh, said the society owned one Happy Seeder, which was in demand by farmers.

“We charge Rs 1,100 per acre for the Happy Seeder. The demand is on the increase. This year we have witnessed almost 50 per cent reduction in stubble-burning,” Balkir Singh said.

He demanded that the government increase the subsidy on Happy Seeders to enable farmers to purchase them.

At present, a Happy Seeder costs Rs 1.5 lakh and the government gives a subsidy of Rs 50,000. But farmers find the amount to be very low.

“Capital expenditure of Rs 1 lakh is not possible for a farmer. So the subsidy amount should be increased to at least Rs 1 lakh. It will be a game-changer,” many farmers said in unison.

Balkan Singh, a farmer from Gazipur, gives a Happy Seeder on rent.

“I cultivate just 10 acres of land. So I rent out my Happy Seeder along with a tractor once I am done with sowing,” said Balkir Singh, who charges Rs 1,500 per acre.

In Taraori, wheat was sown on 700 acres of land using the Happy Seeder and on 100 acres by Zero Till Machines this year, which is higher than last year’s figure, locals said.

A part of Chaudhary’s farm is being used by the BISA for carrying out various experiments with new techniques for different crop patterns.

At least 10,000 people, including scientists from other countries, have visited my farm in the last six years, Chaudhary added.

The BISA has set up an experimental farm on 500 acres of land in Ludhiana’s Ladhowal along with the PAU.

“Here, we carry out different experiments with crops, such as use of fertiliser, amount of residue, irrigation pattern, which are aimed at increasing food production using less water and energy,” Jat said.