Crop Residue Burning Alternatives - Seeker's Thoughts

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Monday, 1 April 2019

Crop Residue Burning Alternatives

Crop residues are materials left on cultivated land after the crop has been harvested by the farmers. 
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Stubble burning refers to the use of a controlled fire to clear the crop residue that remains in after harvest and could more accurately be called crop residue burning. 

Why is crop residue burned?

Crop residue burning is convenient to the farmers, because they get lesser time between rainy season and dry season. For another crop season, farmers can not wait that residue to naturally processed. 
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It must be noticed that these crop residues play an important role as the primary infection source of many diseases for succeeding crops because the crop residue may contain diseased plant portion, on which pathogenic agents have multiplied to a large extent. 

Moreover, residue management is not available in India. The technologies which are available need costly equipment and microbial residue management strategies. Therefore, neither of them could be successful at the higher scale.

India accounts for about 2.4 % of the world’s geographical area and 4.2% of its water resources, but supports about 17.6% of its population which highlights the fact that our natural resources are under considerable strain.  
The need for providing food grains for a growing population, while sustaining the natural resource base, has emerged as one of our main challenges. 
Food grain are a major source of energy and are thus vital for food and nutritional security.  As such, food grains would continue to be the main pillar of food security and out of various crops grown, rice, wheat, and pulses are still part of the staple diet of most of the rural population. 

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As per available estimates {Directorate of Economics & Statistics, MOA, DAC, New Delhi (final estimate-2012-13)}, India produced about 93.51 million tons (Mt) of wheat, 105.24 Mt of rice, 22.26 Mt of maize, 16.03 Mt of millets (jowar, bajra, ragi and small millet), 341.20 Mt of sugarcane, 7.79 Mt of fiber crops (jute, mesta, cotton), 18.34 Mt of pulses and 30.94 Mt of oilseed crops. Out of various crops grown, rice, wheat and sugarcane are prone to crop residue burning.

These crops are preferred by farmers since they provide higher economic return, as compared to other crops. State-wise details of crop residue generated, residue surplus and crop residue burned.

Crop residues are primarily used as bedding material for animals, livestock feed, soil mulching, bio-gas generation, bio-manure/compost, thatching for rural homes, mushroom cultivation, biomass energy production, fuel for domestic and industrial use, etc. However, a large portion of crop residue is burnt ‘on-farm’ primarily to clean the field for sowing the next crop.

The problem of ‘on-farm’ burning of crop residues is intensifying in recent years due to shortage of human labour, high cost of removing the crop residue from the field and mechanized harvesting of crops. As per available estimates, burning of crop residues is predominant in four states, namely, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh & West Bengal.

What are the areas of ‘Crop Residue’ Burning?

North India produces a large quantity of wheat and paddy to ensure for the food security of the country.
The region produces an equally large quantity of crop residue. Wheat straw is considered a good fodder and is separately harvested using harvester combined with the help of tractor-operated machines.

Harvesting of various crops generates large volume of residues both on and off farm. Ministry of New and Renewable Energy estimated that about 500 Mt of crop residues are generated annually.

The generation of crop residues is highest in Uttar Pradesh (60 Mt), followed by Punjab (51 Mt) and Maharashtra (46 Mt). Among different crops, cereals generate maximum residues (352 Mt), followed by fibres (66 Mt), oilseeds (29 Mt), pulses (13 Mt) and sugarcane (12 Mt).

Cereal crops (rice, wheat, maize, millets) contribute 70%, while rice crop alone contributes 34% to the crop residues. Sugarcane residues consisting of top and leaves generate 12 Mt, i.e., 2% of the crop residues in India. 

Why should not we ignore the ‘crop residue burning’?

Open burning of husk is of incomplete combustion in nature which produces a large number of toxic pollutants, carbon monoxide, a volatile organic compound and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
A Lady suffering during Smog in Delhi
Clouds of ashes and smoke travel more than thousands of kilometres and create obstinate and non-clearing clouds. Delhi’s pollution is highest. One of the major reasons attributed is stubble burning in rural areas around Delhi.
Smog formed from the smoke can increase the levels of pollutants by manifolds in the air, making it difficult to breathe.



After being released in the atmosphere, these pollutants are mixed in the surroundings. Mixing with other gases causes physical and chemical transformation that eventually adversely affects human health. Frequent crop residue may contribute to the formation of brown clouds and affects the local air quality, atmospheric visibility and earth climate.

What has been done to control the ‘Crop Residue Burning’?
The National Green Tribunal has fixed the environment penalties according to the incident for landowners with less than two acres.

Punjab has set up a paddy straw challenge fund of 1$ million for scientists around the world to present technological solutions on crop residue management.

Large-scale production of ethanol from paddy straw is also being explored.
Further, the central government-owned Hindustan petroleum corporation Ltd early this year announced the setting up of India’s first-second generation ethanol bio-refinery in Bathinda at a cost of 600 crores.

How to tackle the challenge of Crop Burning?
Baling can remove the bulk of cut straw from the paddock, but it leaves behind weed seeds. It can cause soil compaction from the extra vehicle traffic in the paddock and is only viable if there are reliable markets for the baled straw.


Burying crop residue by ploughing uses of fossil fuel and is not good for soil quality.

Therefore, merely asking farmers to stop the practice will not be the sustainable solution. There is a need to find a mechanism to commercialize the crop residue.

For example, use of crop residue as input for biomass, to be used along with coal its power plants. The government can incentivize the greater use of biomass through a power purchase agreement.

Another solution is the use of rotovators, the machines which spread the crop residue into the soil, which can improve soil fertility. Harvester machines can be combined with the straw management system and government can subsidize the sale of such machines to make them more affordable.
Management Alternative of Crop Residue

Some administrative measures such as legal sanctions to biomass burning in Punjab could also have not become successful due to lack of supervision. Making equipment and manpower available to cut the crop residue at a large scale needs to be devised for overcoming this cultural practice prevalent almost all over.

The government should use geospatial techniques to identify areas where stubble burning is severe and encourage installation of biomass plants at such locations.

This will not only reduce transportation costs for the firm or village entrepreneurs but also help the government achieve its target of generating 227GW based on renewable energy sources by 2022. Farmers can also be incentivised to sell the residual for additional income.


Conclusion

 The government needs a far sight policy making and a clear vision. Punishing farmers and the blame game approach would not help. There should be better policies to get rid of the problem of Smog and tackle the burning of crop residue.

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