Close to half the paddy cultivation area in Punjab has been sown with a faster-maturing variety that leaves behind less stubble, potentially reducing pollution caused by farm fires in November. Typically, farmers use a variety that takes longer to mature and produces more stubble. Due to floods in July, farmers were forced to re-sow the shorter duration variety. This year, nearly 50% of the paddy area is under the faster-maturing variety. However, rice millers fear less rice yield from the new variety. Farmer unions have called for compensation for the extra effort taken to prevent stubble burning.

For the first time, close to half the total area under paddy cultivation in Punjab has been sown with PR-126, a variety of the crop that matures faster and leaves behind less stubble, raising the hope that it could lead to milder farm fires and reduce the annual pollution impact on the national capital after cultivation this November.

Typically, farmers in Punjab — where 75-80% of the summer crop is usually of paddy — use what is known as the Pusa-44 variety, which produces roughly 10-15% more stubble and takes at least 35 days longer to mature.

“Due to floods in early July, the crop transplanted initially was washed away and farmers were left with no option but to re-sow the short duration variety (PR-126). It came like a blessing in disguise,” said Punjab’s agriculture department Gurvinder Singh.

The total area over which paddy crops have been sown is 3.1 million hectare, of which 2.5 million hectare are of the coarse grain, with the remaining being the premium, aromatic basmati variety. It is the course grain that is eligible to be bought by government, which fixes every year a floor price, or minimum support price (MSP), that makes it a safe bet for farmers.

The Pusa-44 variety, though requiring more water, has been a preferred choice for its higher yield, experts said, despite efforts by the state government to wean farmers off it due to its higher ecological impact.

Typically, the quicker PR-126 variety has accounted for 10-15%% of the sowing every year. This year, of the 2.5 million hectare, an estimated 1.2 million hectare, or nearly 50%, of area is under the PR-126 type.

During the Kharif – or summer crop — harvest in October-November, farmers usually have a shorter window in which they need to clear their fields for the winter crop. Invariably, many choose to burn the paddy stubble left behind after harvest, sending up plumes of smoke that drifts over to large population centres, sinks and chokes settlements in toxic smog.

The crisis often pushes Delhi’s air into the severe category, with air quality index (AQI) climbing past 400 and even 450, to reach severe and severe-plus categories, especially when this period coincides with the festival of Diwali. The concentration of ultrafine PM2.5 particles, which can reach deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, shoots up to levels unfit for breathing. To make matters worse, the crisis plays out when pre-winter weather conditions mean winds die down, taking away most of the scope for the pollutants to be blown away.

According to vice-chancellor of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Dr SS Gosal, PR-126 variety developed by the university produces less residue (stubble) and requires less water. “The variety will cut down on the stubble mass. It is a good beginning and we hope that in upcoming kharif seasons farmers across the state will adopt the variety,” said Gosal.

He added that PR-126 grows (seed to seed) in 123 days (about 4 months) against the Pusa variety’s duration of 160 days (about 5 and a half months). “37 days (about 1 month 6 days) of short variety means one-fourth less irrigation but the yield is the same,” he said.

The average height of PR variety is 100cm and that of Pusa-44 is 115cm — the shorter the paddy stubble, the less of it has to be burned.

But the change may not be lasting. The new variety is a cause of concern for owners of 4,500-plus paddy shelling mills in Punjab as they apprehend less rice yield. “Pusa-44 gives up to 71% of rice in the given quantity of paddy while PR-126 give 62-64%,” said rice millers association president Tarsem Saini.

Farmer unions have routinely called on the government to compensate them for the extra effort taken to not burn the paddy residue.

According to Balbir Singh Rajewal, who heads a faction of Bhartiya Kisan union, farmers had to put extra labour in mixing stubble in the soil and evacuating it from their farms. “So, farmers need to be compensated in the form of a bonus of ₹100 per quintal over and above the MSP,” he said, reiterating a long-standing demand. MSP of ₹2,183 per quintal is offered on paddy this year, an increase of ₹143 from last year’s support price.

“Short-duration varieties are being grown in Haryana too. Sowing was delayed because of delayed monsoon. PR 126 will result in maintenance of same yield,” said Rajender Singh, a Rohtak-based former Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) scientist.

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