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A start-up solution to stubble-burning can save Delhi

We need an option that would take the crop stubble off the farmers’ hands altogether and give them cash in return.

The problem has multiple sources, and crop stubble burning in states neighbouring Delhi is only one of them, but it does contribute upwards of 30% to the fine particulate matter that clouds visibility, allergises eyes and lungs and, in the case of suspended particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 microns, penetrates deep into the lungs and their tissue.

The pollution builds up when the air is stagnant, so the next-to-non-existent movement of the air for short periods in winter that also happen to overlap with the time when farmers prepare to plant their winter crop gives rise to the Delhi haze. For some, it produces creative epiphanies that yield Pollutyens Delhi, Haze Khas, Chandni Choke and the like, but it can spell death for those with heart disease, bronchitis for those with weak lungs and stunted brains for the very young.

Farmers might, just might, adopt measures other than burning off the stalks that remain on the fields after harvesters have sheared off their bounty of grain, simply out of the goodness of their hearts – if they had the time. But time is a luxury they do not have, in the interval between harvesting the paddy and planting the winter crop of wheat. That leaves two options.

Use machines, called Happy Seeders, that pull out the stalk from the ground and plant a seed in the hole so created. Another is to spray the stubble with a chemical that would decompose the plant material and then plough it into the soil, to enrich it with additional nutrients.

Haryana has deployed the machine solution more effectively, as compared to Punjab. The government has part-financed fleets of the Happy Seeder machines that are available for hire for farmers to use on their fields, without incurring the expenditure of owning these expensive machines. In Punjab, agrochemical company UPL’s services arm Nurture. Farm is helping farmers spray a bio-enzyme to decompose the crop residue in the fields with an army of special machines. The enzyme, developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, has been produced at commercial scale by UPL, but the company’s real service is in completing the spraying at speed across large tracts, so that the treated plant material gets the two-three weeks it needs to decompose before the next bout of planting begins. If harvesting the paddy crop is delayed but the time to plant the wheat crop remains unchanged, that window might not be available.

The smoke produced by burning stubble is an externality for the farmer. It can be internalized by levying a fine specified as so many rupees per hectare of cropped area set on fire. That calls for political will of an order that does not exist. Economics offers solutions.

The alternative tried so far has been to incentivize the farmer to adopt a non-fiery method of removing the crop stubble. Farmers might not mind using either the Happy Seeder or the bio-enzyme plant decomposer; but they still have to go to the trouble of finding a machine to hire and organizing a task that is not directly under their control, calls for coordination with third parties.

We need a third option, one that would take the crop stubble off the farmers’ hands altogether and give them cash in return. Let the government incentivise start-ups that would uproot and collect the stubble from the farms, process them into useful things, and generate profits from the output.

Here also, the challenge is to remove the stubble in about 10 days. That means deploying a very large number of machines to remove the stubble from thousands of hectares all at the same time. The start-ups challenge is to solve the following problem.

It might not be very tough to devise a machine that can remove, at scale and at speed, the plant stubs that remain after a harvester has done its job. If a machine could do only this, it would be put to work only twice or thrice a year, after each harvest. That would mean heavy capital investment on an army of machines that lie unused most of the time and demand maintenance expenditure as well. So, it would make sense to design an attachment to a machine already in use, such as a tractor, or a truck, that would perform the job of uprooting the stubble and collecting it as the machine moves over the field. Another solution is to design a machine that could clear not just even-sized, evenly-spaced plant stubs on a level field but also any kind of undergrowth of a reasonable size on uneven ground. Such machines would find use off cultivated fields round the year, and so would lock in less capital.

The stubble that is collected can be mixed with other organic matter and composted to produce manure. The cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin found in paddy straw have uses ranging from producing rayon and paper board to synthetic wood and biofuels. With growing volumes, processes which convert crop stubble into useful products would increasingly turn commercially viable, calling for ever lower amounts of subsidy.

The start-up challenge is to find solutions that maximise the cost-benefit calculus for both stubble removal and stubble conversion. The advantage of the government subsidizing the start-up, rather than the farmer, is that the stubble removal would depend on good, old self-interest, and not any woke sense of responsibility on the part of the farmer towards the suffering denizens of the National Capital Region. The farmer would sell the stubble to both get rid of the hindrance to the next sowing and receive some cash for the waste being removed, and the start-up would mobilise its essential raw material when it can.

The subsidy burden can be shared by the governments of the states involved, as well as of the Centre. The start-ups would create new enterprises, new jobs and, potentially, reduce the capital-intensity of farming. If the stubble-removing start-ups accumulate enough tractors to do the job in the short window available between paddy harvest and wheat planting, these tractors can be made available on rent to the farmers, obviating the need for farmers to own these machines themselves.

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