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Posted at: Apr 14, 2018, 12:55 AM; last updated: Apr 14, 2018, 12:55 AM (IST)

Make hay, make the sun shine

Farmer-academician Gerald Harrison, for whom Punjab is second home, on how to utilise paddy straw

Sarika Sharma

Why must stubble be a problem, when it can be the solution? Each year end, smog engulfs North India and while stubble burning is considered to be the root cause, Diwali crackers are often used as an excuse to dismiss this issue. So much so that, last year, the Supreme Court enforced a cracker ban in Delhi and the National Capital Region, though it is only a minor and transient cause of the suffocating smog blanket. But Gerald Harrison, a retired academic from Canada, doesn’t understand why we can’t put paddy stubble to use. He wonders why India can’t do what Canada has been doing for long.

It is a sunny morning in Chandigarh as Harrison sits to reminisce the good-old days when he first visited here. It was 1977. He could then take photos of the Shivalik Hills from his in-laws’ house (he had married a Punjabi woman in 1971); the colour of the sky was a brighter hue of blue. He remembers that the evenings even then had a pall of smoke from cooking fires and burning leaf residue, but the stars still came out, the sky still looked beautiful. “But now it is so bad, it is hard to breathe,” says Harrison who hails from Saskatoon, a western Canadian city with deep agricultural roots.

 Raised partly on a farm himself, Harrison, a retired Asian Studies lecturer with the University of Saskatchewan, has seen the problem, both here and in Canada, understands it, and knows there are ways to deal with paddy straw. Generally dealt with by burning, the straw harms the environment and the health of people around. “One of the better options could be ammoniating the crop residue. Treating the straw with anhydrous ammonia or urea makes it more digestible for livestock,” he says. Harrison says that paddy straw thus treated can make it more digestible for the cattle that are fed only wheat straw here. It is also a cheap solution. However, while ammoniated straw was researched and used in Canada, it failed to catch on widely. “That is solely because they currently do not have a feed shortage in Canada.”

Back home in his country, where temperatures are below the freezing point at this time of the year, crop straw from last year can also warm up homes. “Some farms are not on the natural gas grid and use straw burners to burn straw bales. The furnaces in question are outdoor units that heat up water as the straw burns. The heated water is then pumped through pipes to radiators in various farm buildings,” he says and suggests Indian villages could use some version of these units for cheap central heating, provided the units are stoked and monitored closely.

A stark difference that he points at is the colour of the soil and in its tendency to powder and blow or wash away. “Our soil is black and here it is brown to red. That is because there is little organic matter in the carbon-poor soil. And why is there no organic matter in the soil? Because you are burning it!” Harrison says all plant residue should go back into the soil to add fibre and nutrients.

Harrison says some rice-paddy straw in India is already used to make paper, but feels that someone has to keep thinking things through to deal with the remaining straw that is wasted. He puts the onus on the agricultural research universities in India — some of whom have already done the groundwork. Lack of new research has meant that the problem of stubble burning remains unattended. He feels no one is showing leadership.

For his wife, Tej Harrison, who retired as a librarian from a polytechnic institute in Saskatoon, it is also about a lack of will in people. She says things begin to change when one takes responsibility for change. With regard to composting organic material on a small scale, it could be a small thing like composting at home. “We all do it in Canada. Why can’t we do it here?” questions Tej. We are yet to find out the answer.


Time for action

  • Gerald Harrison says Indian universities have already researched the problem, but seem not to have acted upon their own research to apply in the field. This needs more emphasis.
  • The processed straw has an economic value to livestock farmers, which is lost if the straw is burned. “This point needs to be hammered home! Sensible farmers will not burn a product that they can either use or sell,” he makes a point.

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