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Crop Residue Burning

A Case for On-farm Usage of Crop Residue

Rajinder Chaudhary ( has taught economics at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak and is adviser to Kudarti Kheti Abhiyan, Haryana, a voluntary civil society initiative.

A response to “Crop Residue Burning: Solutions Marred by Policy Confusion” (Sucha Singh Gill, EPW, 8 September 2018) discusses how in situ utilisation of crop residue is not only the best option, but also a feasible one, evident in the practices of organic farmers of even Haryana and Punjab, where residue burning is the most prevalent. Off-farm usage of crop residue may be better than burning as it addresses the issue of air pollution, but it is only the second-best option as it leads to soil fertility depletion.

The article “Crop Residue Burning: Solutions Marred by Policy Confusion” (EPW, 8 September 2018) by Sucha Singh Gill focuses on comparisons between various off-farm usages of crop residue, particularly paddy straw. It brushes aside on-farm usage of straw as unviable without doing a detailed analysis. Courts, governments, and the society have woken up to the hazards of crop residue burning because the practice has reached such proportions that it is causing large-scale air pollution. Gill also mainly focuses on pollution caused by crop residue burning. But, is the air pollution caused by crop residue burning the main hazard associated with the practice? Going by the fact that crop residue burning has been ignored till the air pollution issue became serious, it would appear to be so, but that is not true.

The main problem with crop residue burning is that it is damaging to the soil and, hence, to farming and farmers themselves. By burning crop residue, not only do the nutrients that could be recycled and restored to the soil go waste, the subsoil microbial life is also killed off. Subsoil microbial life is the real basis of soil fertility and a spoonful of topsoil could have millions of microorganisms of various kinds. While these microorganisms are so tiny that they are not visible to the naked eye, it was reported in the early 1960s that their weight in the top one foot of soil on one acre of land could go up to 1,000 pounds (~450 kg) (Carson 1962: 43). One does not know the latest figure because constant chemicalisation of farming has been killing off this microbial life continuously, as ­reflected in the declining organic carbon content of soil. Given increasing reliance on external inputs, intrinsic soil health—including soil biology and soil physics—has been neglected. But, this neglect has been at a huge cost to the farm economy.

The consequence of killing off the microbial life in soil is that to maintain the same level of yield, the dosage of external inputs has to be increased every two years or so. This is borne out by official per acre fertiliser usage figures. Killing off microbial life through chemicalisation has, in due course, led to the total neglect of microbial life per se. As farmers get used to neglecting soil microbial life, crop residue burning is the next logical step. If you do not value something, you do not mind it being killed.

Reasons for Residue Burning

But, why do farmers resort to crop residue burning? Gill lists the following reasons: paddy straw is not useful as feed due to its high silica content, short time lag between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat, and difficulty and heavy cost involved in on-farm usage of paddy straw. The difficulties in the incorporation of paddy straw in soil were elaborated by farmers at an international workshop held in November 2016 in Chandigarh. Farmers pointed out that paddy straw, given its plastic-like surface, is difficult and, hence, costly to chop. This plastic-like surface also results in the straw taking a long time to decompose, which in turn comes in the way of the timely sowing of wheat. The farmers and Gill are right to an extent: all these are real issues with paddy straw.

Then, why burn wheat straw? Wheat straw has none of the problems associated with paddy straw. It is valuable as animal feed, not difficult to chop, and there is no urgency of sowing the next crop, except maybe in the cotton belt. Yet, it is also being burnt at a significant scale, though not at the same scale as paddy straw. Wheat straw burning is not just limited to what Gill (2018: 23) calls a “very small part, around the boundaries of fields.”

While not negating the problems listed by farmers for paddy straw burning, wheat straw burning at a significant scale clearly indicates that problems of on-farm usage of paddy are compounded by the fact that farmers do not realise the consequences of crop residue burning for soil and, hence, for their own farm economics. Paid out costs are easily noticed, but long-term or indirect costs are often not visible and, hence, neglected.

Practices of Organic Farmers

That on-farm paddy straw management has no insurmountable technical problems and is an economically feasible alternative is evident from the fact that no organic farmer burns it. Though still a minority, there are a good number of organic farmers in the straw-burning rice–wheat belt of Punjab and Haryana. If organic farmers can manage crop residue without burning, even in the rice–wheat cropping cycle, it clearly indicates that it is possible technically as well as economically to manage crop residue without burning. Moreover, usually organic farmers do not even sell it for off-farm usage. What do they do with it?

First, it can be used as animal feed. In other parts of the country, say, in Bihar, it is a common practice, and given the rising prices of wheat straw as animal feed, the landless are using paddy straw as animal feed even in Haryana and Punjab. If it is not required as animal feed, then it is either incorporated in soil, or collected and stored in a corner to be later used either as mulch to cover soil or to prepare high-grade compost (which is much better than simple farm yard manure), or just left to decompose on its own in due course. All these methods do involve additional labour and cost, but organic farmers do it as they find this additional cost to be a worthwhile investment. On-farm usage of agricultural residue leads to nutrient recycling, increases the water-holding capacity of soil, and additionally helps in weed control and conserves moisture when used as soil mulch. In the bargain, soil microbial life is also protected. However, it must be added that in this respect organic farmers have some advantage over conventional farmers. An organic farm has better soil health, which in turn means it has better microbial sub-soil life. This ensures that, when incorporated, crop residue decomposes faster. On the other hand, the soil of chemical farmers is practically devoid of microbial subsoil life and, hence, decomposition of incorporated crop residue takes much longer.

Second, soils of organic farms have better water absorption and, hence, after irrigation—which is used for the decomposition of incorporated straw—the soil is ready for sowing sooner than in the case of conventional farms. However, even in the case of chemical farms, decomposition can be speeded up if microbes are added to the soil. While home-made concoctions can easily do this, certain government-supplied or commercial, but very cheap, decomposition speeding-up formulations are also available.

However, Gill (2018: 23) is right in noting that

Zero tillage technology through the use of Happy Seeder machines … requires purchase of costly machines … [and] tractors with stronger horsepower than those possessed by most of the farmers.

Rotavators, besides being costly and requiring high-capacity tractors, lead to compaction of the subsoil, exacerbating the already widespread problem and further reducing the water absorption capacity of farms. Rather than investing in these heavy and costly machines, development of simple tools which are specially jigged to chop rice straw would be useful both for organic and conventional farmers.

Promotion of On-farm Usage

On the whole, government policy must promote on-farm rather than off-farm usage of crop residue, like electricity generation, ethanol, or bio-compressed natural gas (CNG) production, as Gill and many others suggest. While off-farm usage of agricultural residue does take care of air pollution and prevents the killing of microbial life, it takes away valuable farm nutrients, which will then have to be externally supplied. Off-farm usage of agricultural-residue can only be the second best option; a better option is to recycle it on the farm. Another option or rather the best option is to change the cropping pattern and get out of the rice–wheat cycle specifically and practise crop rotation. The rice–wheat cycle, which provides a short sowing window for wheat, is not an ecologically sound practice in any case. This has been repeatedly pointed out by even the mainstream agri­cultural establishment, which, as has been noted by Gill (2018: 25) in the closing lines of his article, has called for “the need to reduce this crop from at least 20% of sown area.” If eventually this rice–wheat cycle is broken, as it needs to be, investments in off-farm usage, like for ethanol or bio-CNG production, would go to waste. However, if agronomic practices are modified to encourage on-farm usage, there would not be any such problem even if the cropping pattern were to undergo a change.

Lastly, punitive measures work for exceptional behaviour, but if this behaviour is widespread, punitive measures should be the last option. Education and “nudging” towards desirable behaviour through a suitable policy regime should be given priority. Simultaneously, while the state must facilitate and even sub­sidise on-farm usage of crop residue, farmers’ organisations must also realise that crop residue burning is not just an external hazard and pollution issue, but also an internal hazard that burns holes in farm economics. Farm residue can instead be easily managed with a little effort and innovation.


Carson, Rachel (1962): Silent Spring, Goa: Other India Press.

Gill, Sucha Singh (2018): “Crop Residue Burning: Solutions Marred by Policy Confusion,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 53, No 36, pp 23–25.

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018


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