Crop residue burning in northwest India contributes to nearly a quarter of Delhi’s air pollution in the winter months, creating a crisis situation and public health emergency every year . The Nature Conservancy in India has been advancing projects in India since 2015 to support India’s efforts to “develop without destruction”. We work closely with the Indian government, research institutions, NGOs, private sector organizations and local communities to develop science-based, on-the-ground, scalable solutions for some of the country’s most pressing environmental challenges.
A specialized zero-till seeder called the “Happy Seeder” is a core intervention being promoted by the Nature Conservancy in India to assist in crop residue management in India. Developed by agricultural researchers over the last 10 years, the Happy Seeder 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, all in a single pass. It, therefore, allows farmers to sow wheat immediately after their rice harvest without the need to burn any rice residue for land preparation. The Happy Seeder use by farmers reduces farm equipment labor, fuel (saves 20 liters of fuel mainly diesel per ha), chemical fertilizer uses and pre-sowing irrigation requirements (saves 1 million liters of water per hectare). It also improves soil organic matter over time, which enhances soil health, productivity potential and soil biodiversity and thus ultimately improves the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution by PM2.5 and PM10 particles, black carbon and obnoxious gasses, by preventing burning of crop residues
That’s why the Happy Seeder is a practical and tangible solution to the immediate challenge of rice residue burning in northwest India. Along with our partners, we are committed to supporting the government by piloting the efforts to accelerate the adoption of this technology. We have set ourselves the ambitious goal of no-burn agriculture by 2022 that will require concerted efforts from numerous governmental, non-profit and private sector organizations but with foresight and commitment, this is certainly doable. In the long run, India will have to make efforts to overcome underlying systemic challenges facing agriculture as a whole. These include shifting to a more diversified cropping system that is not water-intensive; removal of conflicting subsidies on irrigation and key policy reforms in the agricultural sector.
In northwest India alone, rice residue amounts to nearly 33.9 million tons, and sustainably disposing of it before the next crop requires labor, time, and capital. Currently, less than 15% of the total rice residue in northwest India is being utilized through various options such as electricity generation, production of bio-oil and on-farm use such as incorporation and composting. Happy Seeder can enable the use of crop residue on the farm itself while also benefiting farmers.
By promoting interventions around no burn agriculture, we hope to address a real issue faced by farmers in northern India while at the same time taking on the rather toxic problem of air pollution.
[Seema Paul is Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy in India. The views expressed are her own.]