A middle-aged man rolls his pants up and wades into the water with a makeshift fishing pole in hand. He then calls out to his acquaintance a few metres away to join him in catching the small fish that swim here. But, his invitation goes in vain—the loud hums of a running motor drown out his voice.
While the fish and water lilies here might suggest otherwise, the water that the running motor is pumping out is not from a lake or a pond. These are the submerged paddy fields of Jhuljhuli, a recently declared ‘urban’ village in southwest New Delhi hugging the Haryana border. Adding to the misery of the owners of these low-lying fields was the unseasonal heavy September rainfall, which damaged rice crops in Jhuljhuli and many other villages in New Delhi and Haryana this year. Currently, according to Jhuljhuli’s residents, about 70 to 90 acres of rice crops in this village are completely damaged due to waterlogging. Motor pumps currently dot the village, in the hope that they quickly extract the excess water from the fields so that the wheat can be sown on time in November. In the meanwhile, the freshwater fish in the waterlogged fields have become added food for some.
“Jab dhaan hi nahi bacha toh parali kya jalayenge? [Now that there is barely anything left of our rice crop, where is the question of burning any stubble?],” asks Deepak Yadav, a farmer from Jhuljhuli, on the question of stubble burning in the national capital. The phenomenon of burning rice stubble by farmers in New Delhi and its neighbouring states can contribute up to 40% of the toxic air that circulates in the city during this time of year.
Last year, Yadav’s family experimented with the bio-decomposer capsules created by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), popularly known as the Pusa Institute. Available as capsules, the Pusa decomposer aimed to hasten the decomposition of rice stubble, which would otherwise be set on fire.
On Yadav’s fields, the decomposer failed. But, less than a kilometre away from his village, the decomposer has garnered admirers. Throughout early October, when men in the village of Sarangpur met for their routine evening hookah, they all agreed that this year they would use the decomposer in their fields. After all, they saw that their fellow resident, Bhom Singh, was happy with its results on his two-acre field. “Through conversations with fellow farmers, I believe that even the few who were doubtful last year will use the Pusa capsule this year,” says Bhom Singh.
Bhom Singh, Deepak Yadav, and their many neighbours were amongst the 300 farmers that experimented with the Pusa decomposer last year. The decomposer is a capsule that needs to be mixed with chickpea flour, or besan, and gud, or jaggery. Ideally, for 25 litres of this mixture, 4 bio-decomposer capsules are required, enough for one acre of land. After being sprinkled on the stubble, it needs about 20-25 days to work on breaking down the agricultural residue.
Last year, the Delhi government announced that the capsules were a success as they completely decomposed the stubble in northwest Delhi’s Narela. Now, since early October of 2021, it has committed to spraying the fields of over 800 farmers with the Pusa decomposer for free to tackle the air pollution crisis.
With the rice harvesting season just around the corner, it is worth exploring what factors led to the Pusa decomposer receiving mixed reactions—like those of Deepak Yadav and Bhom Singh. More importantly, these hits and misses also hint at the complexities of farming in the national capital.
With Villages Devoid of Training Sessions, the Pusa Capsule is a Hit and Miss
Since many fields in Jhuljhuli are low-lying, waterlogging in the fields is an annual occurrence in the village. But, this year has been worse than the last few. Jitender, Deepak Yadav’s brother, questions if perhaps it is this geography and the fields’ high water content that could explain their unsuccessful trial with the Pusa decomposer last year. “Maybe the capsule requires certain moisture, temperature, and soil conditions to successfully decompose stubble. The high moisture content of our fields might not have been conducive,” he says. “But, we are not sure of this, because there was no information provided to us on how to use the mixture and in what conditions.”
Jitender also points towards another possible reason. “We also heard that the capsule is specially designed to be used for non-basmati varieties of rice. But, around our villages, only about 10 to 15% of the paddy grown is non-basmati.” While scientists from IARI did not respond to The Bastion’s requests for comments on this matter, newspaper reports often mention that the mixture was primarily sprinkled on ‘non-basmati’ rice in New Delhi last year. Some experts in previous interviews assumed another reason for the ineffectiveness of the decomposer— that the colder conditions (of late October and early November) hamper the decomposer’s fungal growth.
“Wherever the Delhi Government is spraying the mixture for free, maybe the information provided about the process and minute details of [weather] conditions required is better. But for farmers like us, who took this up [acquiring the Pusa decomposer] at our own cost, we find that there is a big information gap,” Jitender says. Even this year, their smaller questions lie unanswered, with little to no clarity on whom to approach with technical queries. And so, there is not much encouragement amongst the farming population to try the decomposer again. “Some sort of feedback mechanism that allowed us to discuss these issues with the Delhi Government would reduce this gap,” he adds.
To the Delhi Government’s credit, some training initiatives have been undertaken. “We have a target of holding 50 meetings between August and November 15 this year, of which 32 have taken place so far,” says A.P Saini, the Joint Director of Agriculture in Delhi’s Department of Development. “Apart from this, to monitor our processes, we also have third-party audits in place; this year, they were conducted via WAPCOS [a government consultancy under the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti]. We also go on-site to various farms across all of Delhi’s districts, conduct the sessions there, and speak to a few farmers about their experience. So far, we have not gotten any poor feedback on the decomposer.” Perhaps it will take a few more seasons for the Delhi Government to cover more villages.
Less than two kilometres away from Jhuljhuli, paddy fields in the village of Sarangpur too have faced damage due to rains, albeit not as extensively. Bhom Singh believes that such damage is exactly why farmers could use the Pusa decomposer.
Sone Pe Suhaga; The Cherry on the Cake
“When paddy is damaged with the rain, then even the stubble has no value for any other use, like cattle feed,” Bhom Singh says. “In those cases, the decomposer can help us remove the stubble from the fields quickly.” Understanding Singh’s point demands a closer look at the various parts of stubble that require different interventions to be extracted. Mechanically harvesting paddy leaves behind a few inches of stubble, which is much higher as compared to manual harvesting. A large part of this stubble can be used as cattle feed—the minuscule amounts of stubble left behind can be turned to mulch after being shredded.
Sensing a business opportunity of using stubble for feeding cattle, two brothers from Bihar have been buying most of the stubble from farmers in Sarangpur, Jhuljhuli and other neighbouring villages, and selling it to nearby dairies. In the process, a farmer earns about ₹3,000 per acre of paddy stubble.
“After selling most of the stubble as cattle feed, the small bits that are still left are what many farmers in our village used to burn to quickly make way for wheat. But, the Pusa bio-decomposer, which has to be sprayed on the same leftover stubble, does the work just as efficiently. In terms of managing our stubble, this is an added bonus to selling it to the dairies,” Singh continues. “Sone pe suhaga hai ye [this is an added bonus].”
Yet, as Singh mentions, damaged stubble will not be accepted by dairies either. “Or, if for some reason a farmer is not able to employ labour to manually cut the stubble and has to do it mechanically, then in both cases the farmer will have to find ways to clear his field of this large quantity of stubble. More often than not, they would turn to burning it. But, using the bio-decomposer can mitigate the burning process.”
When Singh experimented with the capsule last year, he was delighted with the results. His neighbours, who were initially apprehensive of the capsule, are now asking him for details on how to use the spray. “Last year, many people who saw farmers like me use the capsule were worried that it would impact the soil’s fertility and wheat crop’s productivity,” Singh says. “But after I harvested wheat with the same output as last year, all their apprehensions disappeared.” Singh remains optimistic that most of Sarangpur will use the Pusa decomposer this year.
Like Singh, many other farmers used decomposers successfully, which Saini of the Delhi Government believes has resulted in lowering stubble burning cases this year. “We had three cases of stubble burning within Delhi on record last year. This year, owing to the Pusa decomposer as well as the delayed cutting of stubble, the count has been nil so far,” Saini says, as of 22 October.
Singh will be using the capsule this year as well. But, he says that if he pays for it, as opposed to the Delhi Government spraying it for free, then preparing and applying the mixture can incur considerable costs.
But is the Decomposer Economically Viable?
“In early 2020, I was amongst the delegation of farmers that were taken by the Agricultural Department to Pusa,” informs Bhom Singh. “That was where I learnt of the Pusa decomposer and became eager to try it on my fields. So, I didn’t register with the Delhi Government for the free sprinkling, but applied it at my own expense.” Apart from spending ₹20 for 4 capsules, ₹200 on besan and ₹100 on gud, Singh also had to rent out large kitchen vessels from catering businesses to mix the ingredients together. All in all, the costs came to about ₹500 per acre.
Jhuljhuli’s Jitender Yadav also points towards the same trend. “See, when the Delhi Government is spraying this for free on farmers’ fields, then there are obviously no costs for the farmers, so this becomes a good, free-of-cost alternative to burning,” he says. “But without that incentive, shifting to the capsule is difficult if it means that farmers have to spend money from their own pockets.”
Jitender’s comments comply with a 2019 study conducted by researchers Seema Jayachandran, Kelsey Jack, Namrata Kala, and Rohini Pande in collaboration with the Abdul Jameel Latif Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) South Asia. Researchers carried out a randomised controlled trial by offering farmers in Punjab cash payments for clearing stubble from their fields without burning it. As J-PAL informed The Bastion in an email exchange, they found that cash incentives—where some portion of the money is given to the farmer upfront—led to 20 to 30% of farmers not burning their stubble. Even subsidies that make alternatives to stubble burning cheaper can help farmers make the shift. “While we did not test specifically for subsidies, from our results we can say that if equipment subsidies target the equipment that farmers prefer to use, and if there is enough equipment such that the subsidy costs are passed on to farmers, they should also be able to achieve a reduction in burning,” J-PAL’s researchers told The Bastion.
Yet, apart from not finding the decomposer economically viable just as yet, for many urban villages like Jhuljhuli, even subsidies available for in-situ, or on-site management of crop residue seem like a far cry. From 2018 to 2020, the Centre released ₹1,151.80 crores for the “Promotion of Agricultural mechanisation for In-situ Management of Crop Residue in the state of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and NCT of Delhi”. Through this scheme, farmers in these states could receive up to 50% financial assistance to use ‘happy seeders’—a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts stubble and spreads it on the fields as mulch, leaving nothing behind to be burned. But, these subsidies are available to only those whose names are mentioned in the land property titles—which is a challenge for many in New Delhi’s urban villages.
“Initially, the transfer of property rights in the event of a family member’s death or upon sale of the property used to happen via the [Delhi government’s] Revenue Department. But since 2018, when our village was declared ‘urban’, all such ‘land mutations’ have stopped since lands of the village have now been transferred to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA),” says Deepak Yadav. Since then, the responsibility of land mutation has been oscillating between both the DDA and Delhi government, with no consensus on their respective jurisdictions so far. In Jhuljhuli alone, up to 150 families have not been able to register their names on their property documents. In all, 174 urban villages in New Delhi share the same fate; as a result, agricultural-related subsidies, loans, and even compensation for damaged crops, including those for in-situ management of stubble, remain out of their hands.
While some of these challenges shape the limitations of tackling stubble burning, experts point out that a long-term solution is needed. For Polash Mukerjee, who leads the Air Quality and Climate Resilience unit at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, the solution for farmers in New Delhi lies in crop diversification.
Looking Beyond Rice
“Unless farmers find monetary value in diversifying into other crops, they will continue growing paddy, which is not even traditionally demanded in this part of the country,” Mukerjee explains. And where there is rice, there is stubble, and there is burning.
There is value to this argument. An article by the Food and Agriculture Organisation highlights how New Delhi’s agriculture changed in the early 1970s, with the onset of the Green Revolution. Rice only entered New Delhi’s farms post the introduction of high-yielding rice seeds during this time. With this, these new and highly productive seeds replaced the traditional oilseed, pulse, and coarse-grain crops traditionally grown in the Delhi NCR. Where the usual trend was of multi-cropping vegetables, pulses and oilseeds, the 1970s saw a shift to high-input and high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. In the Agricultural Census, the earliest data available for New Delhi’s cropping pattern is for 1995-96, and it shows a similar trend with paddy—between 1995 to 2016, the area under paddy in New Delhi has increased from 6,000 hectares to 7,000 hectares.
Any shift back to multi-cropping will be slow but is not impossible. In fact, in Jhuljhuli, amidst a sea of golden paddy crops lies a one-acre island of green. This is the farm of Amit Kumar. Fed-up with constant damage to his crops from waterlogging, in 2018, Kumar decided to shift to growing organic vegetables on a slightly elevated piece of land. “I realised that the paddy crop was only taking [labour, time, and inputs] from us, and not giving [produce] anything because of constant damages,” he says, as he takes a break from tending to his organically grown spinach, methi (fenugreek), mustard, carrots, and radish. On a different piece of land, he also grows organic rice, but much less than what he grew earlier. Kumar has found a good consumer base in Gurugram where he has been able to make enough profits for his household to run; he expects higher productivity and profits from his organic produce over the next two years.
While Kumar’s reasons for diversifying crops are different, his experience is proof that it is possible to do so, while still making it a profitable enterprise. Either way, it is certain that at least his farm’s stubble will not be contributing to the city’s air pollution.
However, stubble burning is only a part of the larger air pollution problem in New Delhi, where more stakeholders are also involved—such as transport, industries, and thermal plants—all of whom need to be addressed. “The Delhi Government has been much more proactive than the other neighbouring states in terms of stalling air pollution at the source, whether it be banning any red- category industries from being set up in New Delhi, or requiring an updated Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate every three months,” adds Mukerjee. “That being said, it should be reiterated that pollution is a transboundary problem, wherein a common roadmap for cleaner air has to be made at the regional level, including [in consultation with] the nearby states.”
As the seasons turn, New Delhi prepares itself for the forthcoming poorer air quality by focusing on minimising the fires set to rice stubble. While this happens, New Delhi farmers’ experiences highlight that there are more factors that will impact the success of the Pusa decomposer and other alternatives to the burning too—ranging from stalled land mutations, to the need for training, to the capital’s shift to single cropping. Consultations with farmers over what seemed to work and what did not with the Pusa decomposer will ensure the effectiveness of this novel solution.
Featured image: water being pumped from the waterlogged paddy fields, while a house sports a slogan by Delhi’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra: “Don’t burn rice stubble, save Delhi’s environment”; by Vaishnavi Rathore. | Editor’s note: this piece was updated at 3:10 pm on 27 October, 2021, with quotes from J-PAL South Asia’s researchers.