Madhya Pradesh farmers burn the stubble from rabi harvest, to grow a third crop before kharif

  • The Narmadapuram and Harda districts of Madhya Pradesh have been cultivating green gram crops over the past few years, during summer, between the rabi and kharif seasons.
  • While the farmers sowing the green gram are benefitting from the bumper crop with the government also purchasing at a support price, the third crop is impacting soil fertility.
  • Farmers also burn the stubble of rabi crop to plant green gram, due to which the micronutrients in the soil are depleting and weeds are increasing.

This is the second story in a three-part series, where Mongabay-India examines the reasons for stubble burning in central India, the possible solutions to end stubble burning and also analyses the efforts from the government. Read the first story and the final story of this miniseries.

Farmers of Madhya Pradesh’s Narmadapuram (previously Hoshangabad) district were expecting a good produce of wheat crop this year. But they were both shocked and confused when they harvested the crop. Despite favourable weather conditions, the average yield of the crop was two to three quintals less per acre than the previous years. Narmadapuram’s black soil is famed for its fertility. This central Indian district, with an area of around 5400, has been competing with the entire state of Punjab for wheat production. But now, the farmers are left wondering why the production has gone down and why the soil is losing its fertility.

The third crop

With the availability of water from the Tawa dam built on the Tawa river, farmers in Narmadapuram and Harda districts are able to cultivate a third crop in the two summer months. For the past few years, the cultivation area of green gram crops has increased in both districts.

A farmer working in Madhya Pradesh.
Narmadapuram’s black soil is famed for its fertility. Photo by Rakesh Kumar Malviya/Mongabay.

According to the data received from the Agriculture Department of Narmadapuram, in 2020-21, green gram was harvested in over two lakh hectares in the district and in 1.17 lakh hectares in the Harda district. In the same year, both these districts produced 3.45 lakh and 1.76 lakh metric tonnes (MT) of green gram, respectively. According to the state Agriculture Department website, the per hectare production stood at 1,500 kg. This figure has gone up year after year.

Narmadapuram tops the list in terms of green gram production in the state as well as the country. In the current year, Narmadapuram’s target is to sow green gram in about 2.95 lakh hectares. Next on the list is Raisen district, where green gram will be sown in 1.60 lakh hectares. Harda district is in third place and here, an area of 1.40 lakh hectares has been reserved for green gram production.

Talking about the changes in the agricultural pattern in Narmadapuram after the availability of improved irrigation facilities, Kashmir Singh Uppal, a professor who closely monitors agriculture patterns in the district, said, “Earlier, only one crop was sown in the district. This included coarse grains, too. The decade of the 70s marked the arrival of the Green Revolution here, after the construction of the Tawa dam. Then, wheat and gram were sown in the rabi season and soyabean in the kharif season.”

Initially, it gave bumper production. The colour of the seed was black; hence it was called black gold. “However, later its production decreased, and it was also said that it was degrading the soil. Paddy replaced soyabean. There was a gap between the two crops, which gave some relief to the soil. But this new type of farming is harmful to the soil,” he said.

Read more: New report estimates district-wise crop residue potential for bioenergy production

Earlier, both Narmadapuram and Harda were part of the same district. In 1998, Harda was announced as a separate district. In 2022, the name Hoshangabad was changed to Narmadapuram. Both districts are agricultural districts. However, before 1970, agriculture here was rain-fed.

Rajesh Samle, a farmer from Narmadapuram, said that after the arrival of the third crop, the crop cycle in this area has changed. “The wheat crop matures in the last week of March and is harvested the week after. Earlier, there was a month-long gap between the two harvesting seasons. Now, thanks to harvesters, this work is done in just a week. On the other hand, due to good rainfall in the district, water from the Tawa dam is released in summer. This provides a scope to sow an additional crop, but this has degraded the land quality. Now, both these districts are dominated by cash crops,” informed Samle.

Why growing green gram has led to stubble burning

It takes only two months for the green gram crop to ripen. However, it is necessary that the sowing is complete by the first week of April. The reason behind this haste is that the monsoon comes knocking on Madhya Pradesh’s doors by June 15. Starting from the first week of June, the farmers need 15 days to cut the crop and take the produce to the market. Therefore, as soon as the wheat crop is harvested, the farmers hastily burn the stubble to prepare the fields for green gram.

This burning has two disadvantages. First, the land is not getting any rest or time to prepare itself for the next crop. Second, due to widespread stubble burning, the incidents of arson are on the rise.

Farmer in Madhya Pradesh sets fire to the crop residue to prepare the field for green gram.
As soon as the wheat crop is harvested, farmers set fire to the crop residue to prepare the field for green gram crop. Photo by Rakesh Kumar Malviya/Mongabay.

Narendra Kumar Lenka, senior researcher from Bhopal-based National Soil Institute, says that burning stubble to prepare the fields for the next crop is the main reason why the micronutrients in the soil are getting depleted. This affects soil fertility.

Virendra Tiwari, a journalist from Seoni Malwa tehsil of Narmadapuram district, says, “There is always this fear of the fire spreading in the villages. Sometimes, due to stubble-burning, standing crops get damaged. Many such incidents are reported in March and April. Many houses have been damaged. Last year, in Babai village, two hundred acres of land got engulfed in fire and many farmers lost their lives. But stubble-burning continues unabated. Unfortunately, due to the altered farming cycle, it has become unavoidable. It is very frightening”.

Improved incomes, worsened soil conditions

Tiwari describes how most of these incidents happen because of chaff machines that are being used to make chaff from the stubble. The blades of these machines are close to the ground. Many times, because of negligence, the stubble catches fire. To avoid this, almost every year, the administration bans stubble-burning in fields and also the use of chaff machines. The officials also warn of punitive action.

The same government, which claims to have found solutions to the problem of stubble burning, also encourages farmers to plant green gram to achieve the goal of doubling farmers’ income. It is also buying green gram at a support price. It is natural that more and more farmers are drawn towards sowing green gram and in such a situation, stubble-burning becomes inevitable, observes Tiwari.

Nilesh Banke, a farmer from Thua village, says farming has become more like a business. “Cash crops have changed the lifestyle of farmers here and to maintain that they have to earn more money even if it comes at the cost of the health of the soil. They are not following even the simplest of rules like crop rotation or skipping one sowing season to give the soil some time to breathe. They are sowing something or the other throughout the year. It is making the soil hard. Earlier, they had to irrigate the farms twice. Now, they have to irrigate four times. This is leading to the growth of a variety of weeds. This is a matter of great concern. The land here may turn barren in the next few years,” said Tiwari.

A field in Narmadapuram. Photo by Rakesh Kumar Malviya/Mongabay.
A field in Narmadapuram. Photo by Rakesh Kumar Malviya/Mongabay.

Nirmal Shukla, a resident of Narmadapuram, who is concerned about the environment, says the economy of the district has improved because farmers are doing well financially, but the environment is getting impacted.  “The trees around the fields are also dying. Another problem is the excessive use of chemicals and fertilisers being used while sowing green grams. This crop is very sensitive to weather. Excessive pesticides have to be sprayed in summer. To ripen the crop before the rains, insecticides are also being sprayed on the crop,” says Shukla.

Sitasharan Sharma, former Assembly Speaker and MLA, has stated on several occasions, “We are cultivating poison by sowing this third crop of green gram. It is dangerous for the environment.” J.R. Hedau, the deputy director of agriculture in Narmadapuram, says that green gram is beneficial for farmers as it helps them earn additional income, but the method adopted by them is incorrect and dangerous.

This story was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.


Banner image: The burning of stubble to prepare the fields for the next crop damages the health of the soil the most, depleting the soil of micronutrients and adversely affecting the soil’s fertility. Photo by Rakesh Kumar Malviya/Mongabay.

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