Over the past week, Delhi has remained under the grip of dense smog. This year's pollution levels are the highest ever measured in two decades.
Newspapers reported that much of this pollution originated in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana where farmers burn their fields to dispose crop residue. But they were short on providing solutions to deal with the problem of burning of agricultural fields.
There is, in fact, a simple, practical, and cost-effective way to eliminate most of the smog that envelopes Delhi and the entire northwest of the country every November.
At this time of the year, farmers in the states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh harvest the rice crop by combine harvesters. This machine leaves rice straw strewn all over the fields. Because farmers do not value the rice straw as animal-feed or for non-feed use, they dispose of the residue by burning it. The straws clogs the seeder machines that plant the next crop, which is wheat, so farmers need to dispose of the residue before attempting to plant wheat.
But a simple solution exists. A machine called the 'Happy Seeder', manufactured by several different Indian companies, has been developed in the last few years that can plant the wheat seed without getting jammed by the rice straw. It is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat into the bare soil and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch.
Does the machine affect yields? Is it cost-effective? Will farmers adopt it? To answer these questions, one of us (Gupta) surveyed 92 farmers in the year 2010 that used this technology in some plots, while using the conventional machine on their other plots. This allows a comparison between the cost, yield and profit from using Happy Seeder versus the old method for the same farmers.
For one, it was comparably productive; the average yield of wheat on plots that used the machine was 43.3 quintals/hectare while the average yields on conventional plots was almost the same at 43.8 quintals/hectare.
Was it cost-effective? The average cost of preparing the field for sowing wheat using the Happy Seeder was Rs 6,225/hectare while it was Rs 7,288/hectare using conventional methods. Thus farmers save on average Rs 1000/ha by cultivating plots with this technology. One major reason is the elimination of the need to till the land.
Per-hectare profit on average from wheat was Rs 40,548, about Rs 500/ha more than the profit on conventionally tilled plots. Thus, this technology is profitable, but the gain in average profit is small and so while some farmers will see a small profit gain, others may see a small profit decline when they switch to using the new machine. Some farmers will probably adopt this technology on their own, but without major government support we cannot expect use of the machine to spread rapidly.
Banning burning, or appeals by government officials, have been mostly ineffective in the districts of Punjab and Haryana. It has mostly failed, because farmers don't know of any cost-effective alternative, and they are politically too powerful to be forced to do something that would reduce their incomes from farming.
Our research shows that this is a viable alternative to conventional tillage. What is needed for its rapid adoption is a major government push to publicise and popularise it. Currently, the Happy Seeder machine costs about Rs 1.3 lakh with a subsidy of 33%. We propose that the subsidy on the machine be raised to 50% because it would then be significantly more profitable than the conventional practice.
The active rental markets for agricultural machines in northwest India imply that take-up can be very quick once a significant number of farmers own the machines. But we need to act now otherwise we will be coughing and choking every November.
Also on HuffPost