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Stubble burning: A classical case where cure turned out to be worse than disease

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The author is an environmentalist and has been working in field of rain water harvesting, water conservation, forestation and afforestation. You can reach out to him on his e-mail [email protected]

Is making new law the only solution?

As winters approach each year, India awakes to the problem of stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana leading to pollution in Delhi and NCR. The intensity of noise gets compounded if political dispensation is different in the Centre viz a viz Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and UP. Neem Hakeem Khatra-e-Jaan is an old saying which explains the current situation which in fact is a result of governance myopia wherein long run consequences and resultant fallouts were ignored.

But the core issue is as to how stubble became a zero utility item. After all, not only rice but all crop residues were multi utility items for the farmers. For this we need to understand the changes that have taken place in agri scenario for last four decades or so.

Food Security

1970s saw the Govt encouraging the farmers for switching from their traditional crops to boost production of rice and wheat to ensure food security. The conditions in Punjab and Haryana were ideal, fertile land, adequate land holdings, hardworking farmers and water availability. No wonder the area turned out to be granary of India in no time. But we forgot that everything has cost attached to it especially if we lack proper planning and foresight.

Depletion of Water Table

Within first decade itself something very shocking occurred i.e. water table started going down. It was most ironical that land of five rivers was talking of deficient water; It is something like Ambani suffering malnutrition!

New system of paddy-wheat cycle caused unprecedented exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. First alarm was raised as early as 1979 when groundwater levels started falling in central Punjab and parts of Haryana. By early 2000s the situation assumed grave proportions and was flagged by Central Ground Water Board.

From Frying Pan into the Fire

With the alarming crisis of falling water table staring at their face, Punjab State Farmers Commission (PSFC) was established in 2005. PSFC prepared a draft legislation prohibiting rice cultivation before notified dates suggesting it as only measure to stop water depletion since delayed sowing of paddy will take it as close as possible to monsoon. Hence, Punjab enacted a law in 2009 banning the sowing of rice before a stipulated date. Haryana too followed suit.

Remedy Turned out to be Worse than the Disease

Delayed sowing resulted in the farmers getting a smaller period for harvesting. Prior to this law, farmers had enough time before planting wheat while now they were only getting window of 2 weeks. Since they did not have enough time to prepare the field between two crop cycles, they claim that farmers are forced to burn the stubble. Weeding the straw meant additional costs (just see the diesel price) and labour rates are very high.

Village Eco-System

Crop residues were an important and integral part of the village eco system. It had multi utility, used as fodder, heating/cooking, for dunnage/ bedding in sheds, making of ropes, thatched roofs, added to cow dung for manure etc. While rearing of 4-5 cows/buffalos was a common sight for each household in the village, however this is no more the case. Breaking of joint families, shrinking of landholdings, disappearance of common grazing lands and mechanization are few reasons for this shift. Changed cropping pattern due to new water laws accentuated the problems of continuous fodder for animals.

More Problems Follow

The delayed cropping pattern has reportedly resulted in various diseases in plants resulting in increased use of chemicals which have direct impact on health. Since the period before sowing of wheat crop is only 15 days, it does not give any recuperation time to soil hence farmers tend to use more chemical fertilizers. By and by the soil has started to lose its natural fertile content thus forcing farmers to be totally dependent on pesticides/ insecticides and hence further increasing their input costs.

Where do we go now?

Last week Govt announced that a new law will be enacted to tackle pollution in Delhi and NCR. But does the solution lie in this? Are we trapped at a point of no return? Or will it take us from a bad situation to an even worse situation? To my mind to overcome the problem we need to take few measures over a period of time.

Back to Basics

Perhaps ‘makke di roti aur sarson da saag’ is one of the most important answer i.e. going back to the basics. Encourage cultivation of alternate crops like, Maize, Millets, Pulses etc as these require less water. Cultivation of Basmati variety be preferred for the same reason. Crop diversification is must.

Govt should come up with assured procurement of alternate crops and ensure that farmers get equivalent profit as of rice.

Utilisation of River waters

We need to harness full potential of river waters of three eastern rivers (Ravi, Satluj and Beas). New canals needs to come up to ensure complete utilisation of river waters with aim to reduce dependence on underground water.

Have Ceiling Limits

Fix the ceiling of landholding where rice can be cultivated say 30% and on remaining 70% land sowing of only alternate crops be permitted. But Govt will have to put in procurement system in place first for this.

Limit Power Supply

Some regulations and costs on power supply should be planned and implemented.

Promote Horticulture, Agro Forestry

Horticulture and agro forestry needs to play major role in sustainability of resources. This will decrease water stress to a great extent.

Micro Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting

Bambi culture’ has to go; let there be no doubt. Basic techniques of rain water harvesting should be adopted both at individual and village level.

Fodder to Gaushalas/Dairy Farms

Option of giving the fodder to various Gaushalas or to Dairy farms should be explored.

Political Willpower?

The biggest question is whether we have political willpower to resolve this self created mess or will there be lip service only?


Treating stubble burning as a case of pollution does not give us the holistic view of the issue. It also points out our ignorance of understanding resource sustainability and perils of not taking all stakeholders on board in policy formulations.

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The author is an environmentalist and has been working in field of rain water harvesting, water conservation, forestation and afforestation. You can reach out to him on his e-mail [email protected]
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