A Silver lining amid northwest India’s thick smog

Parwinder Singh stands at the edge of his rice fields in Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab, directing a fleet of Happy Seeder machines to mulch his farm residue and sow the wheat crop for the next season. His golden-brown rice stubble stands tall after harvest, contrasting against the charred grey fields all around. Thick black smoke rises everywhere, as majority of farmers choose the easier option of lighting a match and burning their residue to ashes. But Parwinder Singh is among the few, but steadily growing number of farmers, who are changing traditional agricultural practices and using the Happy Seeder – a machine that enables on site management of rice residue in a way that is cost effective for the farmer and beneficial for the environment.

Crop residue burning in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh has drastically increased air pollution levels to a point where governments have declared it a public health emergency for the fourth consecutive year. While the situation is surely grave, there are signs on the ground that change is coming, albeit slowly.

NORTHWEST INDIA’S WINTER HAZE AND WHAT’S BEHIND IT?

  • 23 million tonnes of rice residue burnt annually in NW India.
  • Smoke travels downwind, contributes 18 – 25% to Delhi’s air pollution.
  • Coupled with low wind speed and cold weather, creates a thick smog that captures PM2.5 and PM10.

Leading the way for a “Greener Revolution”

To expedite the pace of the Happy Seeder adoption, The Nature Conservancy and its partners* have organised themselves to work on-the-ground in seven districts in Punjab and Haryana. With funding support from Tata Trusts, 59 Happy Seeders were purchased this November to train farmers in how to use them. We are also working with Precision Agriculture for Development to advance behaviour change communication to aide farmers’ adoption of the Happy Seeder. However, these efforts will begin to show results next year.

Over the past three years, The Nature Conservancy India and partners, had brought together diverse stakeholders and conducted several studies to highlight the Happy Seeder as the most cost effective and scalable solution to achieve a zero-burn future in the next five years. Along with the efforts of many other players, this collective voice was heard by the Central and State governments as well as some farmers. In 2018, the Central government announced financial support of INR 1,151 Crores to the major crop burning states, who further provided a subsidy to farmers on residue managing farm equipment.

OUR PARTNERS

  • International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT)
  • Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA)
  • Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA)
  • Tata Trusts

This has addressed a major financial barrier by making the Happy Seeder 50 – 80% cheaper for farmers and Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs). Since then, Happy Seeder sales have increased ten-fold from 1,000 units in the 2017 burning season to 10,000 units in 2018.

Manoj Singh, who leads TNC-India’s work on crop residue management, says, “While this growth is encouraging, we are aware that it needs to be accelerated quickly. To this end, we are focusing on addressing several behavioural and technical barriers that deter the Happy Seeder’s adoption among farmers. We aim to create a cluster of 150 zero-burn villages across seven districts of Punjab and Haryana by organising field demonstrations and trainings on Happy Seeder use, as well as improving service delivery to make the machine more accessible. We are also conducting communication and educational activities in 700 additional villages to promote Happy Seeder.” He further adds, “Behaviour change science has proved that peer-to-peer learning is among the most effective ways of driving change in a community. Therefore, we are identifying farmers ambassadors in every village who use the Happy Seeder and can lead the way for others.”

Farmer Parwinder Singh at his field ready to use the Happy Seeder © Manoj Singh/TNC-India

Farmer Parwinder Singh at his field ready to use the Happy Seeder.

Kamal, a farmer from Ludhiana, Punjab, who owns three Happy Seeders, says, “I was sold on using this machine when I experienced its benefits firsthand. I have observed a saving of around 5 litres of diesel per acre, as well as improved farm field and soil health. Now, I encourage other farmers in the village to use it, by sharing my personal experience.”

Parwinder Singh believes so strongly in the Happy Seeder that he now provides a rental service to other farmers, particularly ones with small land holdings, “Over five years, I have observed a 0.5% increase in organic matter content in my soil, as well as copper and manganese. I tell other farmers about it, and slowly they warming up to it. Out of 700 acres of fields in our village, 100 acres are now under Happy Seeder use. I am confident this number will grow as more farmers share their experience with each other.”

Building a science-led economic argument

To build a strong business case for using the Happy Seeder, we led 29 International and Indian researchers from various organisations to evaluate the public and private costs and benefits of ten alternate farming practices to manage rice residue, including burn and non-burn options. This analysis proved that the Happy Seeder is, on average, 10 – 20% more profitable than burning and could potentially generate INR 6000 – 11,500 more profits per hectare for the average farmer. Not only can it eliminate air pollution from crop burning, but it can also reduce GHG emissions per hectare by more than 78%. These findings have been published as a paper in the Science magazine. We are communicating these findings to farmers to bust the myth that Happy Seeder use would add to their production cost.

Hope for the future

Changing set behaviours and traditional practices takes time. For this, various stakeholders need to come together and demonstrate the application of the Happy Seeder machine, conduct trainings and education programmes, and drive farmer to farmer learnings. We are confident that the farmers of northwest India, who once led the Green Revolution in the 1960 and made India a food-surplus nation, will once again rise to the occasion and help India transition to a zero-burn, conservation agriculture-based future. With the right support, they can ensure sustainable production of food which ensuring clean air, healthy soils and also improved water tables in the region.

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