Challenges of wheat harvesting during COVID-19

WHEAT HARVESTING and STRAW BURNING

One indirect and positive fallout of the lockdown in the country has been
that the environment has been cleaned up, the skies have become blue and the
quality of air in terms of purity is now comparable to any other place in the
world.

It is also the time of the harvesting season of a wheat crop and as the
harvesting has been delayed on account of the lockdown a sense of the urgency
has crept in to expedite harvesting as the field has to be prepared for the new
crop before paddy sowing would start. So, there would be a familiar sight of crop
residue being set to a flame to clear the field ( particularly in Punjab,
Haryana, and parts of UP)and owing to windy conditions there are reports of a
widespread fire as a fallout that extends to the neighboring fields and much
beyond, engulfing the standing crop in the neighboring field.

In the previous harvesting season of paddy, a gargantuan an effort was
initiated by all the stakeholders to see to it that the straw left in the field
is not set fire upon but is disposed-off in a scientific manner. To ensure this
government had encouraged the purchase of various kind of harvesting equipment
to the farmer bodies through various subsidy based schemes, predominant being
the combine harvester and reaper and it needs to be ensured that those
equipment are put into operation so that fire is not resorted to.

For the farmers who are dependent on combine harvesters to reach their
fields from Punjab and Haryana, it would be a tough challenge as the combine
harvesters cannot travel such distances in such a small time.

The farmers this season are placed in a piquant situation on an account of
a serious and critical shortage of labor also, so the temptation to set the
fire to the crop residue and prepare the crop would be more so tempting.
 The challenge is immense as the window for harvesting is short on account
of the lockdown and on an account of the labor shortage, the problem is going
to be compounded.

Social Distancing in agricultural operations

Coupled with it is the challenge of social distancing. While the combine
operator is socially distant, there are three to four persons who work at the
back end of the machine to complete the exercise and if social distancing is to
be maintained, then it would be difficult to complete the operation in the
available time.

Why should the straw not be burnt for a change?

It needs to be ingrained in the mind of the farmers that on account of this
shutdown a natural process of healing of the agricultural land has also taken
place and it has the potential to provide benefits to the crop in the ensuing
season. It is for the first time in quite a distant memory that the soil has
been left to recoup itself. If the crop residue is burnt, the vital nutrients
that the soil has been able to recoup could be lost.

The farming community has another existentialist dilemma to find a solution
to. The dilemma is of assimilating and collecting the fodder. Even after the
harvesting is done by the machine, the fodder that has been prepared needs to
be carried to its place of storage. For each farmer, 1-2 labor is required to
undertake this exercise. In the current season, the critical shortage of labor
would mean that the fodder that has been harvested may not be collected in the
same proportion.

If this happens an additional income that farmer derives from the residue
by selling the wheat straw to various factory owners where it is used as a raw
material for firing the boilers would not accrue. This straw is predominantly
used by various MSME (Medium and Small Scale Industries), for whom it is a cheaper
source of energy than electricity and there is a possibility that these MSMEs
could be deprived of this cheap source of energy.

The way out would be to prepare an inventory of the harvesters at the block
level and organize its utilization in a structured manner so that all the
farmers are able to harvest their crops. When the government has given the
relaxation for agriculture, it also needs to tie this loose end from the back
so that the small farmers do not lose out which happens in the normal course as
the window of harvesting is curtailed.

Nalin

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