At around 4pm, black wisps of burnt rice straw snow down on Sangrur.
Late October and early November in Punjab, India, is the time when hundreds of thousands of rice farmers, having harvested their crop, rush to clear the land and prepare for the wheat season.
This means lots of fires. Over a period of about a fortnight, more than one million hectares of straw and stubble is set ablaze, releasing – by my humble calculations – around 12 megatons of carbon dioxide. The smoke engulfs entire neighbourhoods, and blots out the sun. I was out-and-about in Sangrur for five days and didn’t once see the sky – just a smoky haze.
Everywhere we drove there were either fields on fire, those blackened and smoking, or those raked with straw, waiting to be ignited. Most farmers burn in the afternoon, when the straw and stubble is relativey dry – hence the ash fall around 4pm.
Nonetheless, this is India’s breadbasket, where rice and wheat have been grown in annual rotation on an industrial scale for years. But cracks are beginning to appear in an agricultural system that feeds up to 500 million people.
Plummeting groundwater levels mean farmers are forbidden from planting rice until the 10th of June each year. This allows reserves used for irrigation to be recharged during the country’s rainy season.
But fixed rice planting creates a rigid farming calendar, leaving farmers only a few days to clear the rice and plant the wheat. Dropping a match onto a tinderbox of rice stalks is a cheap and effective way of dealing with your crop residue problem, with one hectare reduced to smouldering ash in about 10 minutes.
If you’re still with me, here’s the rub: in recent years, rising temperatures during the wheat season have started to hit production, with some farmers reporting yield losses of up to 15%. That’s potentially a lot of people short of chapati, and even more reason for farmers to sow the wheat on time, reinforcing the need to burn rice residues.
The search for smarter options
While residue burning is cost-effective, it clearly is not climate-smart. Neither is it soil-smart, biodiversity-smart, or health-smart.
Sitting in the snow of rice ash in Sangrur, I wondered what might happen in an ideal world. Maybe livestock could graze the stubble and straw, leaving behind soil-enhancing manure. Or the wheat could be planted while the rice stubble slowly dies back, the latter providing a useful compost. Or even more outlandish, perhaps more farmers could harvest rice by hand, since the need to burn seems to arise from the need to clear the long stalks left by combine harvesters; hand harvesters don’t burn.
But none of these options seemed viable. Livestock aren’t partial to rice stubble, I was told by Dr Sarwan Singh, a project leader at IFFCO, a local cooperative. Plus, there’s probably too much biomass to chomp through. Also, labour is relatively expensive compared to renting a combine. I counted at least 15 people standing at the roadside watching one of these machines do its work.
And whether it’s because the vast majority of farmers here are accustomed to a certain level of mechanisation, the story I heard time and again, was that you need some pretty sophisticated hardware to plant wheat if there’s still rice stubble in the ground.
One possible solution cited by several farmers, was the Happy Seeder, a locally-made seed and fertiliser driller. Attach it to a tractor and it plants wheat seed straight into the ground, ripping through the rice stubble. While this means no burning, a Happy Seeder is roughly 500,000 times more expensive than a match.
And price is not the only obstacle. In one village we encountered a Happy Seeder parked behind closed gates, with cobwebs in its seed funnels. Apparently the owner hadn’t used it for over a year because he hadn’t been able to find the right kind of tractor to pull it.
As I left Sangrur, with smoky clothes and stinging eyes, I was directed to two recent news stories. The first, from last month’s Chandigarh Tribune, detailed the imminent opening of a biomass power plant in Fazilka, about 150km away, fuelled in large part, by rice straw. This seemed like small-but-significant progress.
The second was a CNN/IBN piece about a huge blaze in a rice storage depot. Apparently poor storage facilities ended with “tens of thousands of tons” of rice grain going up in smoke as well.