Stubble burning should be seen through behavioural lens; providing cost, time-effective alternatives key to ending practice

Stubble burning has been a common way of managing crop residue in north India since at least the 1990s. However, over the last decade, owing to its linkage with Delhi’s winter smog and increased media spotlight, the practice has invited various policy measures from both the state and Central governments.

Despite the government interventions, in 2018-19 Punjab and Haryana burnt 40.21 percent of the 28.10 million tons of paddy straw generated in the fields. While the number of burning events overall has gone down substantially,

Punjab witnessed a significant increase in stubble burning in 2020. As can be seen in the chart below, between 1 October and 28 October, 2020, Punjab recorded 21,335 burning events, which is much higher than the number of burning events in 2018 and 2019 during the same time.

Crop Residue Burning: 1 October to 28 October (2016 - 2020)

Generally, farmers are solely responsible for the management of stubble generated on their land. This notion is rooted in the ‘polluter pays’ principle that holds polluters (farmers) accountable for the pollution (stubble) from their economic activity. However, it is crucial to recognise that in most cases, farmers burn crop residue because they must. There exist certain gaps in government policies and their implementation that still make burning paddy stubble the best alternative for farmers to manage crop residue.

Shortage of crop residue management (CRM) machines

Although farmers are expected to use CRM machines for managing stubble, the non-availability of these machines has been a crucial issue. In 2018-19, the number of machines delivered in Punjab stood at 28,609. The following year, this number fell to 14,625, even when the total number of machines sanctioned by the government was 22,872.

In Figure 2, we can observe a discrepancy between machines delivered and sanctioned in 2019-20, indicating the availability of machines is a crucial factor behind stubble burning.

Figure 2: Machines sanctioned and delivered in Punjab (2019-20). Source: Nirmal 2019

In the 25-day time window during which farmers have to manage the stubble and sow the wheat, the 12,694 Happy Seeder machines delivered between 2018 and 2020 (9,758 in 2018-19 and 2,936 in 2019-20), can sow only 20-25 lakh acres.

But, according to a CEEW report, Punjab has 56.83 lakh acres of land where stubble is burnt every year. And, the 12,694 machines can sow only one-third of the total area where stubble burning is reported. Based on the report, Punjab would need, on average, 35,000 Happy Seeder machines to cover this entire area.

There have also been reports stating delays on the government’s behalf in placing orders to the empanelled manufacturers.

Unaffordable equipment and labour

CRM machines are expensive to buy as well as rent, and despite the subsidy from the government, most farmers — especially small landholders — are unable to afford them. A Happy Seeder machine costs about Rs 1.3 lakh. Even after a 50 percent subsidy, a farmer needs to pay about Rs 65,000 for one.

Loans to cover the cost of buying or renting the machine comes to be Rs 4,000 per acre. Although the Central Sector Scheme (CSS) also provides an 80 percent subsidy to farmer co-operative societies to rent the necessary machinery, most of them still do not have enough funds to purchase machinery.

Also, in Punjab, there is a shortage of high-power tractors (65 HP) that are required to pull the Happy Seeder machines since the majority of tractors have 30 HP to 40 HP capacity. These cost around Rs 96,000, which is again expensive. Farmers also find it uneconomical to invest their money into purchasing CRM machines as they are used only once a year for about 20 days, thus leading to additional maintenance costs.

Another holdup is the shortage of labour. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the workforce in agriculture shrunk by 30.57 million, because of a fall in migration due to the MNREGA scheme. As a result of this supply shortage, the labour cost for sowing paddy has increased from INR 1,500 per acre to INR 2,000-2,500 per acre from 2017 to 2018.

In fact, interviews with farmers conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has revealed that due to their financial situation, farmers prefer to burn the stubble and pay the fines levied on them rather than purchase the unaffordable machines and expensive labour.

Inefficient rental markets

Under the CSS, Farm Machinery Banks or Custom Hiring Centres can be established for providing machinery and equipment hiring services to farmers. However, the rental market remains inefficient. In 2018, the Muktsar district in Punjab ordered 96 Happy Seeder machines, out of which only 41 were delivered.

Media reports indicate that in some villages, only two machines are available for 1,000 farmers. The rental cost is also not standardised as some farmer’s co-operatives charged Rs 500 per acre while others charged Rs 1,500 per acre. This has created uncertainties amongst farmers as they are not aware of the correct pricing of the machinery and equipment.

Inadequate market for paddy residue Management

Paddy residue is valuable biomass that can be utilised in power plants, composting, biofuel, mushroom cultivation, making utensils, cardboard/paper making, as fodder, and mulch. Punjab generated 20.17 million metric tonnes (MT) of crop residue in 2018-19, but only about 50 percent of the paddy straw generated. Punjab’s seven biomass-based projects could use only 1 percent of the straw generated.

Figure 3: Amount of crop residue used (million tons per year). Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare 2019


Baling paddy straw, a potential paddy straw management system, costs the farmer Rs 1,100-1,400 per acre. Farmers do not find it economical to invest the time and resources required to collect the paddy straw, because even if they do so, there is no guarantee that the stubble will be bought or even taken away from their fields.

Lack of awareness and trust

Studies indicate a lack of awareness among farmers regarding the implications of stubble burning and a lack of information about alternative options to manage crop residue even when they want to stop the practice. Misinformation regarding a fall in wheat yield when Happy Seeder machines are used for sowing wheat also exist.

There have been cases where farmers collected the crop residue for the government officials to pick them up, but no official visited them — leading to losses and a lack of trust in government assurances.

Some farmers ultimately burnt the crop residue as it was blocking large areas of their fields. Some farmers in Punjab who refrained from burning stubble have also not received their Rs 2500 per acre compensation that was promised by the government.

Representational image. PTI

Policy interventions, thus, should also be aimed at helping farmers gradually shed the generational practice of stubble burning through a multi-pronged framework that benefits them not only now, but also in the long run. Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Improve farmer awareness about the short-term and long-term benefits of CRM machines and in-situ treatment of crop residue. Nudge farmers to shift away from paddy production by increasing the procurement of pulses, oilseeds, and coarse cereals on MSP and provide a proper agricultural marketing infrastructure for these crops.
  2. Ensure affordability and availability of CRM machines to complement this awareness. The rental markets for the machines must be regulated to avoid any artificially inflated pricing and differential pricing. Innovation by the private sector in developing cheap alternative usage of paddy straw and more crop-residue-intensive technologies is required through public-private partnerships.
  3. Scale incorporation of crop residue into the soil by promoting conservation agriculture. The new bio-decomposer capsules developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has been sprayed free of cost across 2,000 acres of non-basmati rice fields in Delhi to convert crop residue into manure. If this is scaled to neighbouring states in a way that farmers can rely on the government to timely spray the chemical, and is affordable for the government, it will be instrumental in controlling the stubble burning problem.
  4. Linkages for ex-situ management of crop residue must be facilitated by the local governments, municipalities, and farmers’ associations. The government must come together with the private sector to create markets and supply chains to establish adequate systems for linking farmers who can supply crop residues to the private sector with a demand for it.
  5. Incentivise crop diversification as a long term strategy to slowly help farmers transition to alternative crops like maize and make them as economically attractive as paddy is today. That would require an MSP scheme for maize, adequate monetary support to farmers to compensate them for the variable yield of maize, guaranteed public procurement, and efficient and affordable machinery.
  6. Promote short-duration rice varieties like PR 126 and PR 127 that mature early, consume less water, have less heavy stubble, and have a higher yield. There have been reports of rice mills discouraging farmers from planting the PR 126 variety as they would not procure it. Hence, it is also crucial to look at the factors deterring them from procuring this variety and try to fix their problems.

To nudge a change in this context, cost- and time-effective alternatives need to exist that can enable farmers to manage the crop residue efficiently and sow the Rabi crop on time. Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, thus, must be viewed from a behavioural lens where farmers’ decisions and government measures are guided by what’s most profitable for them in the short run and sustainable in the long run.

The author is a research associate at Social & Political Research Foundation (SPRF). Headquartered in New Delhi, SPRF is a young policy think tank seeking to make public policy research holistic and accessible.

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