farmers gathered for a kisan kalyan karyashala, a workshop on how to double farmers’ income by 2022, at the panchayat office in Uncha Samana village in Haryana. The burning of crop stubble was a major topic of discussion. As vast wheat fields burned outside, the farmers listened to the agriculture development officer announce an 80% discount to farmer groups that wished to buy the happy seeder, a sower that does not require the field to be cleared of crop remnants, and similar schemes on similar technology.
In other farms near Uncha Samana, the strong winds stoked the field fires and farmers tried to douse them with water to prevent them spreading. Usually, the wheat stubble left after collecting the straw, if not burnt, is left to decompose and blend with the soil. But this year some farmers have set off fires even before gathering the straw. “You may see more fires this year because the price of fodder has fallen from Rs 450 per quintal last year to a mere Rs 200,” explained Shyam Singh Mann, a Bharatiya Kisan Union leader. “Labour costs and rental for a reaper make fodder collecting costly, so the farmers will rather burn the straw.”
The pressure on the farmers to avoid burning and prevent pollution is tremendous. But the alternatives are exorbitant. The central government announced a special subsidy on happy seeders in the Union budget of 2018, in which the allocation for the sub-mission on agriculture mechanisation was increased from Rs 525 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 1,140 crore. But as of now, even wealthy farmers have not acquired happy seeders. There aren’t too many around to hire either.
Sarpanch Shiv Kumar of Uncha Samana, who owns 65 acres of farmland, doesn’t have a happy seeder. “I have tried to hire it from the Haryana agriculture department, but not every farmer gets it,” he said. “But yes, wheat fires have reduced because farmers now realise that they compromises soil quality.”
In neighbouring Kutail, Amar Singh, who cultivates a 12-acre field, also complained of a shortage of happy seeders. “No farmer will profit from burning. Why are farmers being blamed?” he asked, shaking his head at why people think farmers should invest on farm machinery when crop prices are not remunerative. “People should understand that stubble cannot be removed manually. Plus, we have a window of just around 20 days after the paddy harvest to sow wheat.”
Cultivators like Kumar and Singh have tried to move to crop combinations other than wheat and paddy, but failed. Kumar planted maize last year, but couldn’t sell enough to recover the costs. “Everything boils downs to economics. Farmers will do what is profitable for them,” said Mann. “Though there is minimum support price for 23 crops, only paddy and wheat are procured by the government. Farmers who venture into other crops usually end up selling them at a cost lower than the MSP. So it doesn’t make sense of move away from wheat-paddy despite the high water demand and crop stubble problem.”
The annual rise in wheat and paddy prices hasn’t accounted for inflation, argued the farmers. Wheat MSP was Rs 1,625 per quintal last year and went up to Rs 1,733 this year. That for paddy was Rs 1,590 last year. The farmers claim, therefore, not to have enough money to invest in a Rs 1.25-lakh happy seeder. However, agriculture development officer Surender Kumar, optimistic of fewer field fires in October, said, “The 500 farmer groups that have been formed will get a happy seeder at a discount of 80% discount. Farmers can also hire one for Rs 1,200-1,500 per acre.”
The happy seeder scheme is considered a technology that is “climate smart. Other such methods are direct seeding of paddy and zero drilling. But farmers complained of smaller yields and weeds infestation with these. While these methods did reduce water consumption by nearly 40% — a major benefit in water-starved Haryana — cultivators had to buy more weedicides and herbicides, though less pesticide, than in the conventional ploughing method.
“We have to use herbicides three times instead of once,” confirmed Shiv Kumar. Singh added, “Several people failed to use weedicides in time and lost their crop.” Their experience is that the new methods may be water-efficient, but the expenses on weedicides and on new machinery only add to the burden of the farmers in climate-smart villages like Uncha Samana.