Partnerships for Sustainable Stubble Management

India is the second largest producer of rice, a dietary staple across the world. Rice is also an integral part of the regular diet of almost half of India’s population and therefore important for food security. During the green revolution, rice straw cultivation increased drastically in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana. With mechanisation, the prevalent practice of stubble burning (post-harvest remains of rice crops to clear the fields to sow the rabi crops) grew multi-fold to the extent that it aggravates outdoor air quality every winter across the region.  

This conventional practice of burning rice stubble has severe long-term consequences with impacts on public health, especially for farming communities, and citizens living in polluted urban centres of North India. Besides, it has a detrimental impact on agriculture in the region since burning kills the topsoil biota including healthy microorganisms, earthworms, etc. necessary for healthy soil. Repeated burnings combined with excessive use of chemicals, both of which are prevalent in the region, could potentially lead to desertification where the soil system is permanently damaged to be able to produce any food crops. 

Corporate India can play a significant role in both the long-term solution as well as the immediate need for efficient crop residue management, complementing the efforts of the Government. The opportunities for corporate India are many – (1) innovate to find new tools/technologies, (2) facilitate technology transfer to farmers, (3) use rice straw as a raw material in economic activities and (4) strengthen market linkages in the region for alternate crops, all of which would encourage farmers not to burn rice straw. 

Leveraging Joint Resources and Expertise 

As India’s leading Industry association, CII has been at the forefront in addressing the issue of air pollution through its ‘Cleaner Air Better Life’ (CABL) initiative, which brings together corporate India, citizens, the Government and other key stakeholders on a single platform to curb air pollution across India. Under this initiative, it launched a crop residue management program in 2018 in Punjab, led by the CII Foundation, to mitigate stubble burning and support the farming communities to shift to sustainable agricultural practices. The program brings together Governments, Industry, state agricultural universities, Krishi Vigyan Kendras and farmers to implement a project model that takes a holistic view of the issue. 

The program is designed to meet the requirements of farmers with all sizes of landholdings – from marginal to very large farmers to support the lasting shift in crop residue management practices. 

Farmers realise the importance of sustainable agriculture. However, they need practical solutions to existing challenges on the ground, especially, in terms of proper know-how and tools to utilise the straw in-situ. Here, perspectives and learnings of progressive farmers, who have been undertaking these practices for 5-12 years, are extremely important to educate early adopters on long-term benefits, risks and possible solutions to counter risks. 

Crop Residue Management Program: Rethinking Rice Cultivation for Sustainability 

The Crop Residue Management Program not only creates awareness but also supports the farmers with machinery and the technical know-how required for the optimal utilization of the machinery. The success of the pilot program in 2018 established the fact that a solution to the issue of stubble burning exists and that corporate India could drive the solution through its support. So far, 17 corporates have supported the CII program as part of their CSR initiative to promote sustainability in farming communities, and we are working with 100 Farmer Groups (Farmer Cooperative Societies and Farmer Producer Organisations) to mobilize needed resources for farmers in the intervened areas. 

The concerted efforts of the Government and the private sector on crop residue management have yielded visible progress on the ground, enhancing access to needed farm tools and raising farmers’ awareness for adopting in-situ management. The shared economy model of agricultural tools, as promoted under the CII Foundation Crop Residue Management Program in intervened areas in Punjab and Haryana, promotes the effective utilisation of existing farm tools while enabling more farmers to access different tools as per their preferences and prevalent local field conditions. A significantly large number of farmers (77 per cent of all intervened) are now accessing farm tools via community tool banks set up with cooperative societies. These farmers now benefit from 6-10 per cent higher crop yield, 6 per cent fertilizer savings and 20-29 per cent chemical weedicide savings in wheat production. This can be attributed to improvement in overall soil health due to no burning, recycling of nutrients from rice straw application and less topsoil disturbances in the process of sowing wheat. 

Productivity Oriented  

Long-term productivity is increasingly becoming a motivation for these farmers to switch to new practices and sustain them. Overall, the program has been highly successful in achieving community-level adoption with 85 per cent of all farmers adopting sustainable agricultural practices at a cost of cultivation, which is less than the conventional practice. This program has resulted in the avoidance of 6.4 lakh tonnes of rice straw from burning leading to air pollution savings worth 2.7 thousand tonnes of P*M_{2N} from avoided burning. 

The program has led to an exhaustive framework, which can be adopted by any agency working in this space to support farmers in implementing crop residue management activities and quantify multiple impacts in social, economic and environmental dimensions. It is poised to become the first such activity on crop residue management in India to be able to generate carbon credits. 

Fostering Partnerships Among Governments, Communities, Research Institutions, and Industries 

While reasonable progress has been made in recent years and momentum built on in-situ management practices that must be sustained, there is an immediate and pressing need to establish supply chains for ex-situ management to bring a variety of solutions and address this issue in its entirety. Such technologies and business models, nascent for rice straw in the region, are in dire need of scaling. This would require public-private partnerships and collaborations across start-ups, industries, governments and research institutions to leverage joint resources and expertise for effective strategies and implementation. 

Rice is cultivated in large tracts of farmland in Punjab and Haryana, and even though an important crop, it ranks high amongst crops with greenhouse emissions. If we were to apply the sustainability lens, the cultivation of rice at the present scale is also not suitable in Punjab and Haryana from the perspective of water consumption to grow rice in the two states. Therefore, in the long term, a shift to sustainable crop choices such as millets, pulses and corn needs to be seen as a key solution for the overall roadmap for the region. 

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that goes beyond individual efforts. There is an urgent need for more collaborations amongst governments, communities, research institutions and industries for large-scale change. It is only through partnerships that we will be able to make a dent in this large issue and scale this successful implementation model for behaviour change to adopt environmentally-friendly alternatives. 

This article is by Ashwath Ram, Chairman, CII National Initiative: ‘Cleaner Air – Better life’ and MD, Cummins India Ltd. and was first published in CII Policy Watch, Focused on “Crop Stubble Management”. 

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