A farmer in India's Punjab province tends a fire of spent rice stalks as he prepares his field for a new crop © AFP
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Malkit Singh is a typical Punjabi farmer, trying to coax as much as he can out of his 10 acres. Before the onset of the monsoon rains, the 70-year-old plants rice. A week after the October harvest, he plants a winter crop of potatoes or wheat.

Yet that quick turnround comes at a high price to public health. After the rice harvest each year, Mr Singh, like millions of north Indian farmers, sets fire to the crop residues — the fastest and cheapest way to eliminate unwanted straw and prepare for the next sowing. 

The burning of more than 9m acres of rice crop residues is now recognised as one of the big causes of the hazardous air pollution that enshrouds New Delhi each October and November.

The Indian capital has some of the most noxious air in the world, fouled by a dangerous combination of exhaust from vehicles running on dirty fuel, diesel generators, road dust, burning of waste and crop burning in neighbouring states.

In 2014, the World Health Organization declared the city’s air the worst of any in the world, including Beijing, a distinction it has since lost after the WHO added many smaller cities to its annual ranking.

Now, amid mounting public uproar over the capital’s dangerously dirty air, farmers are facing intense pressure to change their ways. 

Two years ago India’s National Green Tribunal, an environmental court, banned stubble burning. Punjab authorities are threatening farmers with fines and other punishments, such as disconnecting their free power connections for irrigation, if they defy the ban. 

But farmers complain that they have few effective, affordable alternatives, leaving them no option but to continue as before. “There is no solution without burning the paddy straw,” says Mr Singh. “We are afraid of the government but we have to clear the fields for the next crop.” 

Burning rice straw has emerged as a big problem only in the past two to three decades as paddy acreage has increased sharply. 

While the straw from prized basmati rice is soft enough to be fodder for livestock, that of hybrid rice varieties, which account for most paddy production, is too tough and leaves farmers little incentive to pay workers to cut it. 

“It’s difficult for animals to consume, so farmers do not use it as cattle feed,” says Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Punjab State Farmers’ Commission. 

Concerned about the state’s falling water table, Punjab also now prohibits planting rice until mid-June, just two weeks before the monsoon begins, which has reduced the window between the harvest and sowing the next crop. “The farmer doesn’t even have a week,” says Baldev Singh Dhillon, vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University. 

While alternatives to burning rice straw exist, farmers have yet to be persuaded that they are viable. 

Agricultural equipment companies are selling mulching machines that shred straw into tiny pieces that can be left on the topsoil. But at Rs200,000 ($3,100), they are out of reach for small farmers and not yet available for rent or shared community use. 

Even larger-scale farmers who can afford the mulchers are sceptical about their efficacy, fearing the straw layer on their topsoil will sharply diminish their winter crop yield. 

“Just providing equipment will not solve the problem,” says Mr Jakhar. “A whole generation of farmers today has been brought up to believe that you need to clean up the ground before you sow and now we are being told the exact opposite. It’s a whole mindset change.” 

With 90 acres to farm, Sarabjit Singh Mann bought a mulcher a couple of weeks ago. But he said using it has been painfully slow. This means he will still have to burn much of his land and he is anxious about how his winter crop will fare. “I am not confident that I will be able to sow,” he says. 

His neighbours, watching closely, are also sceptical. “It’s making the soil too fluffy,” says Tarloch Singh Mann, who has 30 acres. “It’s not cutting the straw into small pieces, and not properly mixing it. For potatoes, there is zero per cent chance of getting a good crop.” 

Despite farmers’ doubts, experts are optimistic that crop burning can be tackled, although the mix of policies required means it will be neither easy nor fast. 

Mulchers are still in short supply, with equipment makers struggling to meet a surge in demand. Agricultural scientists are also hoping to popularise new short-duration hybrid rice strains to give farmers more time to deal with straw. Efforts are also under way to develop other uses for the straw. 

Mr Jakhar believes New Delhi should offer farmers greater financial incentives to deal with paddy waste in eco-friendly ways, such as hiring labourers to clear it, and relax agricultural controls to encourage farmers to diversify from rice towards other crops. 

Slowly, mulching is likely to become more acceptable, as farmers gauge the impact on those trying the practice for the first time, while new uses are being tested for paddy straw. 

“This year is a turning point,” says Jaskarn Singh Mahal of Punjab Agriculture University. “We will see a quantum jump in the area that will not be burnt. There is a lot of awareness. Some people are protesting but a large number of farmers are adopting technology.” 

Anumita Roychowdhury, an authority on air pollution at the Centre for Science and Environment, insists the problem can be solved.

“But the government needs to invest in enabling systems to scale up these solutions and add economic value to the straw,” she says. “If farmers can understand there is a value in that straw, they will not burn it.”

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