Why are farmers resisting a government ban on stubble burning?

Charging farmers for stubble burning under a colonial-era law may do little to deal with the air pollution problem.
Published November 13, 2019
A mulcher is attached to a tractor to mix stubble into the soil. It is an alternative for disposing of stubble without burning — *Image by Tahir Wattoo at Mian Ahmed Yar Farms, Pakpattan*
A mulcher is attached to a tractor to mix stubble into the soil. It is an alternative for disposing of stubble without burning — Image by Tahir Wattoo at Mian Ahmed Yar Farms, Pakpattan

Autumn has changed for Pakistan’s Punjab province over the last few years. A season that was once loved for its crisp weather after sweltering summers, a time for outdoor activities, has now become a season full of respiratory illnesses, allergic conditions, and repeated warnings from environmentalists telling the public to confine themselves indoors.

Thick blankets of smog were initially viewed with shock, now their inevitability is a cause for despair.

From Zartaj Gul Wazir, the federal Minister of Climate Change, to the provincial (Punjab) Environment Protection Department, the consensus in Pakistan is that the problem is India’s stubble burning. The government also insists that stubble burning in Pakistan is next to non-existent because the ban is being fully implemented here.

NASA satellite images do show more red spots denoting high heat emissions – fires – on the Indian side. On the Pakistani side, there are a few scattered places where such spots are located.

Read: Why Punjab’s smog has aggravated this year

But Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmentalist and lawyer, says that this is because Pakistan may have burnt only about 35% of its rice stubble yet. When the rest will be burned, the picture may change. Alam recently helped his teenage daughter, Leila, along with other students to file a writ petition in the Lahore High Court highlighting how the provincial government has been misleading the public by using a more lenient air quality index (AQI) compared to countries like the US. Among other issues, the petition also accuses the government of not publicising air quality readings.

Abid Omar, founder of the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), a system of independently owned air quality meters, says that while crop residue burning contributes towards air pollution woes, it is rather a “meteorological misfortune” that prevails over Punjab that causes the toxic mix during winter.

“More crop residue burning happens after the spring (wheat) harvest than it does after the autumn (rice) harvest,” he said. “Yet smog isn’t a summer problem. But during the winter months, all the toxic emissions stay trapped in the lower atmosphere and cause the infamous Lahore Smog.”

Imposing Section 144

He said that when peaks and drops in the AQI are seen it is mostly due to wind changes and other conditions. Despite what the government would like everyone to think, it is not from their own actions. In October the provincial government had ordered the banning of stubble burning, as well as burning other waste under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This clause, enacted in 1898 and amended in 1997, gives the government emergency powers to prevent actions that may lead to harm or probable loss of life.

Farmers, though, do not take the ban seriously.

“First of all, to set the record straight, I don’t think there has been any action even under Section 144,” said Aamer Hayat Bhandara, an independent farmer from Pattoki. “There is little presence of the government, no monitoring and in reality, rice stubble is being burnt left, right and centre.” There have been pictures doing the rounds on social media, taken by those travelling within the province who can see stubble burning.

“The second question we must ask ourselves is, is stubble burning really a contributing factor to the extent that it is being made to be?” he asks. “Paddy cultivation has been an ancient practice of the region and stubble burning is not a new thing.”

Other options

Despite his questions, Bhandara remains one of those few who opt to use machines rather than burn his crop stubble. He uses a Kubota harvester, which piles the stubble behind it as it moves on so that it can be collected and mixed with animal fodder or sold.

The harvester can be rented for Rs6,000-7,000 (USD 39-45) per acre. Unfortunately, many small scale farmers cannot afford such an investment, or it does not make financial sense for them to invest in it.

Tahir Wattoo, who owns Mian Ahmed Yar Farms uses a mulcher which costs Rs150,000-200,000 (USD 965-1,286).

“I don’t believe that most farmers out there cannot afford it,” he said. “When they want to afford something they manage it. They believe they will be cutting the cost of diesel usage if they do not use this, but actually it would save money. In the end, it boils down to the fact that they do not want to switch to modern methods.”

Wattoo says that mulching is a two-year-old process in Pakistan, and most farmers are not fully aware of the process and its repercussions so they fear their next crop may be harmed.

“Stubble burning is actually a problem, despite being the easy way out. Our soil is already low on fertility. By burning it we continue to distress it of its minerals, its texture and softness. But who will educate the farmers?”

“If the government gives subsidies to farmers, things will become easier,” said Malik Asfar. “After the 1950s ‘London fog’, the government banned stubble burning but without ostracising farmers. I would say stubble burning is a smog contributor by 35% maximum, but no more. We must consider air pollution being caused by rising population and increasing traffic.”

Related: Study identifies relationship between smog and rice residue burning in Punjab

Farmers need to be educated; unfortunately, the agriculture department is missing in action.

“It’s a dead department,” said Wattoo. “How have they helped farmers?”

“Nine months of the year they are sleeping, and then suddenly they wake up and start employing section 144,” said Bhandara who even has videos out on the topic on his Facebook page.

“Section 144 is never a solution; farmers should be heard, their problems must be taken into account, instead of simply arresting them,” said Bhandara. He suggested that incentives for cheaper machinery, such as subsidies, providing farmers with balers, or providing machines on rent, might have a greater impact if the government was serious about behavioural change.

“No one discusses other issues such as the burning of biomass, and indoor air pollution, construction, and as mentioned before vehicular and industrial emissions. Sadly the environment agenda that the government came with has not been sustained,” said Bhandara. He suggested that farmers and kilns are targeted because they are visible, while no oil company is punished for substandard fuel which leads to much higher vehicular pollution.

Government is trying

Anjum Buttar, a director-general at the Punjab Agriculture Department, however, insisted that they are working on more incentives – but only for responsible farmers.

“Most of them are responsible, but those who are not are then taken action against,” he said. “We interact with farmers’ bodies almost daily. Currently, in Punjab there are about five million acres of rice – are there so many people burning stubble out there? In fact, Pakistan is not even burning significantly. The problem is more on the other side.”

He said that the government is working on bringing a national programme where choppers and tillage machines are going to be procured and given on subsidies. “Whoever will use the Kubota harvester will be given a subsidy of Rs1,500 (USD 9.65) per acre. We are also talking to banks.”

But Buttar also defended the sector saying that crop burning is not the main cause of air pollution – it is vehicular pollution.

Read: Stubble burning must be reduced to curb pollution

Meanwhile, Hammad Naqi, Director General of WWF Pakistan, said that they are implementing their Climate Resilient Agriculture Programme.

“We keep proposing to the government to provide the farmers subsidies because they really need these. There are many alternatives out there including Happy Seeder (known as Pak Seeder), Zero Tillage Drill, Rice Straw Chopper, and the Japanese Kubota machine. These should be accessible to responsible farmers.”

This worked when the government wanted to promote land levelling, and provided 60% subsidies. This led to a reduction in water use. Farmers were also given subsidies to promote efficient irrigation practices, and this worked too. Currently, Naqi says WWF is working on a study to examine what may be done with the stubble and how it may be reused.

According to Saad Cheema from WWF, under Section 144, the police lodged 544 cases. The highest number of burning incidents was reported from Sheikhupura (204), Jhang (120), Okara (102) and Nankana Sahib (96) divisions of Punjab.

“How many people will they end up arresting?” asked Naqi. “This is really not a long term solution.”

This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.