Having banned stubble burning earlier this year, the West Bengal government is now relying on an intense awareness campaign and use of advanced agri-equipment to ensure farmers do not indulge in the polluting practice, but officials claim that the problem has not yet reached major proportions in the eastern state.
Officials say the source of the problem of stubble burning lies in the farmers resorting to the "quick" technology of mechanical harvesters which leave behind a substantial part of the root of the crop as a residue.
"Stubble is always there in paddy cultivation. The problem is that the stubbles have become longer due to the use of machinery," Pradip Majumdar, advisor, agriculture and allied sector in the Chief Minister's office, told IANS.
Echoing Majumdar, state Pollution Control Board (PCB) chief Kalyan Rudra said the practice of stubble burning was not there historically.
"Due to recent technological advances, the window between the Kharif and Rabi crop has narrowed down. So to prepare the land, the farmers resort to a quick technology by making use of a mechanical harvester. In this process, a substantial part of the root of the crop remains as a residue," Rudra told IANS.
Majumdar said that unlike in the northern states, at this point of time the problem is non-existent in West Bengal, with the Kharif crop yet to be harvested. "The fields are all green everywhere now," he said.
The problem could recur in Bengal after November when the farmers prepare the land for the Rabi crop, Rudra said.
Emphasising that stubble burning was still notA a major problem in Bengal, Rudra conceded that the practice was reported last season from some districts like East Burdwan, West Burdwan, Hooghly, Murshidabad and Nadia.
"We have announced the ban keeping in mind the experience of Delhi," he said.
Rudra said the state PCB had no data on the extent to which stubble burning has impacted pollution levels in the state as "the source apportionment study carried out in Kolkata did not record this particular problem caused by the practice".
On February 8, the state environment department came out with a notification prohibiting "the indiscriminate burning of left-over paddy and straw/stubble in the whole state of West Bengal with immediate effect," saying the "indiscriminate burning... in the open fields after the harvesting of crops is causing widespread air pollution in the whole state."
Rudra said the authorities have suggested to farmers to use balers in case they opt for the mechanical harvester.
"We have suggested that if you want to use the mechanical harvester use a baler which uproots the stubble completely. We have made it clear that farmers cannot resort to stubble burning and can use the mechanical harvester only alongside the baler," he said.
Baler, most often called a hay baler, is a piece of farm machinery used to compress a cut and raked crop (such as hay, cotton, flax straw, salt marsh hay, or silage) into compact bales that are easy to handle, transport, and store.
The authorities are also doing satellite monitoring to trace the areas of stubble burning.
"Whenever we come across even one case, we are immediately asking the district magistrate concerned to take the necessary steps," said Rudra.
Majumdar said intense campaigning was on to convince the farmers about the adverse impact of stubble burning.
"We have told them that the high temperatures generated due to stubble burning would destroy micro-organisms beneficial to the soil. It destroys the soil texture and the live population," he said.
The state also faces a practical problem. The MGNREGA scheme and other such government programmes have led to a scarcity of labour force for agriculture. "As a result, labour has also become pricy".
"Now if there is a residual stubble on the land, there can be ratoons. Not seeing any direct benefits, the farmers think the land can be freed without incurring any monetary cost by burning the stubble. So in our campaigns we are highlighting the harmful effects on the land, and, towards the end, mentioning the damage caused to the environment," Majumdar said.
He said suggested alternatives to stubble burning include using new machines which cut the crop as close to the roots as is done manually.
"Research is also on to find some chemical process to derive the benefits. In Malda, we have experimented with a machine to remove the stubble and reuse it for energy. Similar efforts will be made in the south Bengal districts also.
"But these are now in way forward stages. We will consider all options and take the cost efficient process for the farmers for their adopting," he added.