Feature story

Clean-up act

An end to the crop stubble burning menace in Punjab may be in sight — and with it a reduction in pollution across North India — thanks to Happy Seeder, an innovation that turns a farming bane into a boon

Every autumn, the residents of Delhi and its neighbouring regions are enveloped in a brown haze that drifts across from the fields of northern India, where farmers burn the stubble in their lands in order to get them ready for the next crop. Thousands fall sick with respiratory diseases and the air pollution index goes through the roof. The culprit is, strangely enough, rice.

Traditionally Punjab was not a rice growing state. But farmers in the state have, over the decades, been cultivating rice in the kharif season (June-to-november) because there’s money to be made from it, thanks to the ‘minimum support price’ offered by the government. Farmers can earn a steady income from rice farming and today over 80% of Punjab’s land area in the kharif season is under paddy cultivation.

So far, so fine. The problem comes right after — with the straw residue left behind after the rice is farmed. This straw has to be got rid of before farmers can sow their second crop, typically wheat, and within a couple of weeks. A clean field is necessary and so the farmer puts a matchstick to the straw and within a short time the field is ready for the next crop.

It is estimated that around 23 million tonnes of rice crop residue is burned each year in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The widespread burning of this agricultural waste is a significant source of air pollution, particularly in the early winter month of November, across large swathes of northern India. Millions of people, especially around Delhi and its neighbouring regions are left gasping by the toxic haze that stubble burning causes.

Stubble burning is not good for the land either, diminishing soil health and long-term agricultural productivity. Besides, organic carbon and about 280,000 tonnes of nitrogen, sodium and potassium also gets wasted. And yet farmers continue to burn stubble, despite knowing the ill effects of it for the health and well-being of people, including their own families. For them there is no other simple and cost-effective way to clear their fields. Using a combine harvester does not suffice, as the machines cut the stubble but leave behind mounds of straw.

Problem and solution

If rice straw is the problem, it also represents a solution. Of the total amount of nutrients lost in paddy farming, 25% nitrogen and phosphorus, 80% potassium, 50% sulphur and 50-80% of micronutrients (including zinc, copper, iron, manganese) are retained in the rice straw. The soil is deprived of a sizeable amount of plant nutrients when the straw is removed.

What was needed was a way for farmers to use the stubble instead of burning it. Researchers at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana developed an optimal solution for this. Called Happy Seeder, it is a seed-sowing machine that works with the remaining rice stubble to ensure that the wheat crop gets planted and germinates properly. “From day one we involved farmers and manufacturers in the development process,” says Harminder Singh Sidhu, senior agricultural engineer with the Borlaug Institute for South Asia. A former PAU professor, he was a key member of the team that developed the technology.

Happy Seeder took years to design and develop, and is now being offered as the ‘ideal’ solution to address the stubble issue. It sows the seeds and removes the straw at the same time, scattering it evenly across the field. This straw helps the soil retain the moisture necessary for wheat-crop germination, and decomposes naturally over time.

Starting early

The family of Dilpreet Singh, 27, is among the early adopters of the Happy Seeder. With 85 acres of land under cultivation in Budhlada in Mansa district, Mr Singh’s father is among the more affluent farmers in the region. He bought the machine last year and has no reason for regret. “Our wheat crop yield went up from 24 to 26 quintals in just one season of using Happy Seeder,” says Mr Singh.

While this incremental growth in yield may not appear substantial, these are early stages yet, says Baljinder Singh Saini, area manager of the RGR cell. RGR stands for ‘reviving the green revolution’, a Tata Trusts initiative to holistically improve farm productivity and incomes. The RGR cell has been working with PAU for a solution to the crop burning issue and it has been pushing for Happy Seeder to be used more extensively in Punjab.

The challenge lies in convincing farmers. Happy Seeder has been around for a couple of years but its pricing has been a sore point. Currently costing around 160,000, it has been unaffordable for a majority of farmers, especially those who work with small land holdings. For these marginal farmers, it doesn’t make sense to invest such a large sum when they are able to manually clear their fields in a day or two by simply burning the stubble.

To promote wider adoption of the machine across the state, the Punjab government has stepped in with a subsidy. For individual buyers, the subsidy is 50%, while for farmer groups and cooperatives it is as high as 75%.

Another challenge is getting farmers to use the right equipment at the rice harvesting stage. The sowing with Happy Seeder is easy in fields where rice has been harvested with combine harvesters that have a ‘straw management system’ (SMS), which ensures that the chopped paddy straw is distributed evenly across the field, laying the ground for Happy Seeder to sow the wheat crop.

The Happy Seeder journey

Farmer meets and demonstrations were organised across Punjab to educate farmers about the use and benefits of Happy Seeder

  • Engineers of CSIRO Griffith at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, developed the first prototype of the Happy Seeder in July 2001 and it was first sold to a farmer in Ludhiana district in 2007.
  • Many farm equipment manufacturers are now making these machines, which have undergone a variety of improvements to include features such as compatibility with the farmers’ HP tractors and the incorporation of straw spreaders.
  • Studies have validated the benefits that the Happy Seeder has delivered through residue incorporation in the soil, and through savings on input costs.
  • The Tata Trusts assigned this project to the Punjab Agricultural University in 2009 to work on popularising the Happy Seeder and Rotavator machines. Farm-level demonstrations were conducted over a two-year period across Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Patiala and Fatehgarh Sahib districts to accelerate the adoption and use of Happy Seeder and Rotavator.
  • A working coalition of the Nature Conservancy, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Council for Energy, Environment and Water, along with the RGR cell (an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts) has begun work to promote the adoption of these machines in a phased manner across Punjab.
  • This coalition plans to tap into corporate funding and governmental resources for the deployment of around 158 Happy Seeder machines under this project. In addition to utilisation of government subsidies for the purchase of machinery, companies committing funds will, it is envisaged, sponsor clusters of villages.

According to Mr Saini, there is an obstacle in the form of combine harvester owners. They earn 1,000-1,100 an acre by using their machines for paddy harvest, and are not keen on incurring the additional cost of the SMS equipment. However, with the government stepping in, they are expected to come around to the idea.

Missing piece

Awareness building has been a crucial missing piece in this exercise thus far. Recently, RGR deployed trained kheti doots (scouts) to educate farmers on available farm equipment, use of the machinery, and to address their apprehensions. These scouts have been handpicked from among educated youth residing in the villages, and were trained at the PAU campus on farmer outreach methods. There are 108 such scouts working in the nine districts where RGR has been operating since 2008.

RGR, with its coalition partners, plans to conduct training camps and field days with demonstrations at farmers’ holdings. The intent is to create model zero-burn village clusters through the adoption of Happy Seeder in select districts in a phased manner, covering a significant area within four years.

This push strategy being pursued also involves support such as phone apps, videos and assistance for securing subsidies and purchase of the machines. The project will be monitored through GIS mapping of purchase and deployment of Happy Seeders to identify ‘non-burn’ fields.

Zero-burn villages

“Around 50 districts will be covered over the next three years, and around 1,500 villages will be turned into zero-burn villages,” says Mr Saini. This will be done by adopting clusters of 15-20 villages each to create visible impact over a sizeable area. The government’s current drive through mandates and subsidies is expected to be a prime mover for wider adoption of Happy Seeder.

However, the initiative needs to be accompanied by awareness and education programmes. Says Mr Sidhu: “Rushing into it could create more problems than it will solve. It is better to go small and then scale it up through demonstrable results.”

Right now, RGR is working at a furious pace to build a database of existing machinery with farmers and cooperatives. State-level advisory groups and district-level technical groups are being formed to push the database, and a variety of workshops have been conducted to sensitise the government and other stakeholders.

The Tata Trusts are backing the Happy Seeder project as it offers multiple benefits. It helps increase soil productivity while reducing climate change impact, thus benefitting the farmer, the soil and the air.

Partners in farms

The ‘reviving the green revolution’ (RGR) initiative, launched by the Tata Trusts in Punjab in 2002, aims to popularise diversification in agriculture. It does this by helping shift some of the land area currently under a predominant paddy-wheat cropping system to crops that consume less water and serve as an economically viable alternative to paddy growing.

The initiative also focuses on reducing costs of production, value addition to crops for enhancing profitability from farming, conservation of natural resources, especially soil health and sub-surface ground water, and protecting the environment from the pesticides and pollution caused by crop residue burning.

The RGR cell is housed in the campus of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana. PAU is the technical partner for the development of technologies.

In association with the Punjab government’s Department of Agriculture, RGR acts as the extension wing for transfer of technology. Banking on the presence of RGR in nine districts of Punjab, the cell also acts as a bridge to share farmer feedback on the various technologies that have been developed by PAU.