Around this time every year, the air in Delhi becomes almost unbearable. As politicians and the press point fingers, this column offers up a happy solution.
With the Supreme Court hauling up the government for failing to protect the people of Delhi from the smog that descended on the city over the past month, leaving the delegates to the World Economic Forum choking and coughing, air pollution in Delhi has taken centre stage. Newspapers have reported that much of the pollution originated in Punjab and Haryana. But despite the outrage, no solution has been offered in the press.
There is, in fact, a simple, practical, and cost-effective way to eliminate most of the smog that envelopes Delhi and the entire north-west of the country every November. At this time of year, much of the smoke comes from the burning of rice stalks left in the fields of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh after the harvest. A recent satellite image from NASA, in fact, shows that practically all of Punjab was on fire. Every year, the rice is harvested in early November by combine harvesters where, two decades ago, it was cut by hand. The machines leave loose residue in the field unlike human harvesters who used to take out all the stalks and feed them to the animals that have now been replaced by tractors. The seeder machines that plant wheat in November get clogged by the residue, so farmers burn the residue before attempting to plant wheat.
A happy solution
A new machine called the `Happy Seeder’ has been developed in the last few years that can plant the wheat seed without getting jammed by the rice residue. The Happy Seeder is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat into the bare soil and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch. It helps to preserve soil moisture and conserve nutrients. Thus, using this machine instead of a conventional seeder machine allows farmers to plant wheat without having to first burn the rice residue.
Does the machine work? Is it cost-effective? Will farmers adopt it? Is it worth promoting as the answer to the air pollution from emanating from modern agriculture? To answer these questions, one of us (Gupta), surveyed the 92 farmers in Punjab who were using the new machines last year. Most farmers in the survey using the Happy Seeder experimented with it on some of their land, while using the conventional machines on the rest of their farms. This allows a comparison between the cost, yield and profit from the new technology versus the old method for the same farmers. To see if the Happy Seeder works, we note that the average yield of wheat on plots that used the machine was 43.3 quintals/hectare while the average yields on conventional plots was almost the same at 43.8 quintals/hectare. So it works.
Is the Happy Seeder cost-effective? The average cost of preparing the field for sowing wheat using the Happy Seeder was 6225 rupees/hectare while it was 7288 rupees/hectare using conventional methods. The higher 1000 Rs/ha cost using the conventional method is not surprising since the field is usually ploughed, which is not needed when the Happy Seeder is used.
Per-hectare profit from wheat when the Happy Seeder is used is 40,548 rupees, about 500 Rs/ha more than the 40,024 Rs/ha profit on conventionally tilled plots. Thus, the Happy Seeder is profitable, but the gain in average profit is small and so while some farmers will see a small profit gain, others may see a small profit decline when they switch to using the new machine. So, yes, some farmers will probably adopt the Happy Seeder on their own, but without major government support we cannot expect use of the machine to spread rapidly.
What can the government do?
The other methods of getting farmers to stop burning, by banning burning and by appeals from government officials, including the chief ministers, to farmers asking them to stop burning since it causes so much pollution and so many health problems, has been tried in Punjab and Haryana for a few years now, at least in some districts. It has mostly failed, because farmers don’t know of any cost-effective alternative, and they are politically too powerful to be forced to do something that would reduce their incomes from farming.
What our survey shows is that a major government push to publicise and popularise the Happy Seeder, together with a hefty subsidy of perhaps 50% would very likely lead to rapid adoption of the new machine because it would then be significantly more profitable than the conventional practice. Only then, with a viable alternative in place, can we expect the ban on burning to be implemented, and to stop coughing and choking every November.