Small farmers resort to stubble burning

Published May 3, 2022
— White Star / Murtaza Ali
— White Star / Murtaza Ali

LAHORE: With wheat harvesting almost done in Punjab, farmers have started burning crop stubble in different parts of the province – the practice, which is mostly blamed for causing smog, is however, less frequent and scattered if compared to the situation a few years ago.

During a visit to some wheat growing districts of central Punjab one finds acres after acres set ablaze, emitting smoke and making even normal breathing hard for residents of those areas.

According to farmers, two factors have largely curtailed the stubble burning trend, which used to be considered the only way to clear fields for the next crop when machine harvesting started gaining popularity. The harvesters used to harvest top of the plant containing grain, leaving straw and stubble in the field.

However, with livestock population increasing and diary sector attracting more investment because of huge commercial success, wheat straw chaff, commonly known as toori in local vernacular, saw its demand multiplying, and so was its price – last year it was whooping Rs1,000 per maund, forcing the farmers to save it as much as they could.

Cheap, modern harvesting suggested as a solution

Given the price hike, farmers started hiring machines for chaff making, and makers of harvesters began to add new gadgets to the machines for chaffing straw – thus making it possible to harvest wheat and produce chaff simultaneously.

With it came the provincial policy, which declared wheat stubble burning a crime, punishable with up to Rs60,000 fine, deterring the farmers further. But still, a huge majority of farmers, over 90 per cent, belongs to smaller category, who can hardly afford mechanical field clearing operation and set crop residues on fire in order to prepare for the next crop.

Abad Khan, a farmer from central Punjab, says that chaff is now as important as wheat itself.

“Every acre yields some 10 to 20 per cent more straw than wheat, provided it is done properly. In practical terms, it means 50 maunds of chaff, if wheat yield is 40 maunds. With current rate of chaff hovering reaching Rs400 per maund, it is Rs20,000 income. All those farmers, who can afford it, have shifted to new breed of harvesters, which includes straw cutting and chaff making along with wheat harvesting. Trouble is with small farmers, whose low acreage neither makes them a part of wheat market, nor leaves fiscal space for mechanical operations – so setting fields on fire is the only option they have,” Khan says.

He suggests: “The government can deal with the situation by making these machines more accessible and bring their rent down so that it commercially incentivises the mechanical operation rather than deterring it administratively.”

“There is no doubt that stubble burning should be checked as much as possible, but it is also a fact that its contribution to overall [smog] problem is being blown out of proportion,” says another farmer, Ali Murtaza, from Farooqabad.

He says though stubble burning suddenly rejuvenates smog scare, both these phenomena occur in totally different time frames and environmental realities.

“In winter, with winds at minimal and water drops staying in atmosphere, smog is created. At this point of year [early summer], winds are strong and sweep smoke away quickly. Secondly, stubble burning is mostly resorted to in rural areas, where environment pollution is not as bad as it is in the urban areas,” he argues. The argument, he says, is not aimed to justify burning, but to put it in the perspective.

He says there is a long list of other factors, like vehicular traffic, that needs to be checked urgently. However, even this small factor is also being checked and farmers are being warned against burning stubble and save themselves from legal action --- cases, arrests and massive fines. Last year, over 3,000 first information reports (FIRs) were lodged, let’s see how many are registered this year, he says.

An official of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), where a cell is working to check stubble burning, says that the authority was vigilant and monitoring the situation, taking all possible measures to check the menace.

Published in Dawn,May 3rd, 2022

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