Reducing open field biomass burning using technology
Energy Harvest Charitable Trust has been working on the paddy straw burning problem since 2016. For the last two years with support from NVIDIA has launched a two fold approach for solving this issue. On one hand, Energy Harvest Charitable Trust works directly with farmers like Harvinder Singh on straw collection and on other hand uses technology to highlight the farm fires through satellite imagery. The data from the satellite imagery model is built from paddy straw burning with an aim to utilize the data of biomass burning for large scale interventions through policy changes or private sector interventions.
Government policies are attempting to address this growing problem, but as of now it is based on water table conservation and has delayed the sowing of rice leading to very less time between harvesting of rice and sowing of wheat. This short window of the crop harvesting of rice and sowing of rice has given rise to a new challenge of managing crop waste in this short window of time – typically 2-3 weeks. Harvinder explains that though the crop residue seems a waste material, the quantity of it is a challenge to manage.
India produces nearly 550 million tonnes of crop residue every year. In the states of Punjab and Haryana, 35 million tonnes of paddy straw is left over after harvesting, huge quantities of which are burned as farmers don’t have ways to collect and manage it. This residue burning becomes one of the reasons for air pollution that is responsible for public health emergencies in Delhi every winter. In the state of Punjab alone, there is close to 20 million tonnes of paddy straw which has to be managed in just about three weeks to enable sowing of the next crop. This is not just North India problem, crop residue is burned throughout India as that is how farmers manage crop waste after taking it out some for utilization for animal fodder, mulching, etc.
Scientists at Harvard University mention this in a recent study. “On certain days, during peak fire season, air pollution in Delhi which is located downwind of the fire is about 20 times higher than the threshold for safe air as defined by WHO," which had caused Delhi to be the most polluted Capital in the world.
Figure 2: Cotton stalks being burned on fields in Gujarat Figure 3: Rice waste being burnt on fields in North India
Mr Harvinder, explains that the farmers understand the harmful effects of crop burning which not only causes air pollution but is also harmful for organisms which are needed for good growth of crops. Farmers are always looking out ways for crop waste management and many solutions have been offered by government, NGOs and private players. Today the condition of farmers is such that they are hardly able to make a living out of farm incomes, so any solution which has a cost involved to manage crop waste won’t be practical for the farmers. He then points out to one his association with Energy Harvest Charitable Trust which works in his village which works with farmers on crop waste management. He explains the process of crop waste management – In-Situ and Ex-Situ.
In-Situ: Set of solutions which focuses on putting the crop waste back into the field, this practice is not very popular among farmers as this involves extra machinery, time and fuel to put the crop waste back into the soil while this has no economic benefit for the farmers.
Ex-Situ: Set of solutions which promotes taking out crop waste out of the field and use it for some applications like fuel, construction, paper, cutlery, etc.
Support from NVIDIA has enabled Energy Harvest Charitable Trust to work with farmers like Mr Havinder who is now promoting ex-situ applications among his farming community. The Ex-situ work involves cutting of straw on the field à Raking It (putting it in long lines) and then baling it. The baled straw is taken out of the field and then used in different applications like making biochar (green fertilizer), animal feed, construction, etc.
Before working with Energy Harvest for straw management, there were a lot of biomass fire reports in the villages of Mirzapur and around. One of the key interventions is development of the platform by Energy Harvest Charitable Trust to report fire fires with the help and support from farmers like Harvinder Singh to gather on the ground data for fire reporting which then was used to build the model on satellite images. With support from NVIDIA in the last two years, Energy Harvest has been working with farmers to efficiently manage farm waste collection instead of burning it, leading to significant crop waste collection and generating employment and new income streams for farmers. The farmers can themselves see the reduction in fire points through the platform and have got appreciation from the local administration for their work around straw management which is authenticated from the platform data. The intervention has been able to save farm waste from 1150 acres from burning.
This collection instead of burning of straw has brought in significant impact in the village. Earlier the majority of the straw was getting burned and since now it's collected, this is a significant reduction in the direct air pollution coming from the crop waste burning. Apart from the air pollution reduction, there is also an economic benefit of straw getting utilized. Farmers now don’t have to spend extra money to cut the straw, there is employment generation and there is direct income generation for the farmers who are helping the farm waste collection from different farms. This straw collected by Energy Harvest Charitable Trust is used for different purposes, one of which is biochar, which is essentially a soil-conditioner.
The straw collected is converted to biochar and given back to farmers as biochar which closes the loop of crop waste going back into the field in a very enriched form and this biochar is also a very good source of carbon sequestration helping to take carbon out of atmosphere and putting it back in the soil. There are other uses of straw like construction, mushroom farming, etc, - all that is handled by Energy Harvest Charitable Trust but the best part is that the farmers are ensured a buy back of the straw from the farmers at an assured price.
Way-ahead: Harvinder Singh mentions that there is immense amount of progress which has been made in his region on straw collection through this project, a lot of it is also being recognized by the government as being few of progressive villages to take the straw collections measures and stopping the burnings. But as they move to other villages, they will need support from creating machinery banks for straw collection, which requires a significant investment. This he hopes comes as part of donation from big corporations who are working to solve this problem through their social projects. Harvinder Singh is also helping Energy Harvest Charitable Trust as on the ground expert for building technology solutions on crop waste identification and building a marketplace around that, which he hopes can be scaled up as one of the solutions for crop waste management and connects farmers and buyers of crop waste.
Ultimately, he hopes that the day comes soon when he doesn’t have to worry about air pollution arising out of crop waste burning impacting his small daughter and other children in the villages and on other hand farmers being able to earn something out of the crop waste.