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Global Economy

Paddy stubble catalyses employment, business in Punjab, Haryana

CHANDIGARH: Paddy stubble, a cause of air pollution due to open burning, is driving new avenues in business and employment in the hinterlands of Punjab and Haryana.

In the two breadbasket states of India, the agricultural remnant has become a dominant fuel for a string of biomass projects. Entrepreneurs, mostly well-heeled farmers, have set up firms to collect stubbles from farms by employing modern equipment and deliver to power plants.

“This year, no plant will run short of fuel as a large number of farmers have dithered from burning stubble,” said NS Thethi, project director at Green Energy Planet that runs two biomass projects of 6 MW each in Punjab.“It will improve the plant load factor in power generation,” he said. “The proportion of paddy stubble in fuel will go over 70% this year, unlike in the past when agricultural residues from cotton, sugarcane and mustard were the mainstay and often inadequate,” he said.

Biomass projects have gained directly from growing awareness, which led to an increased number of farmers to give up the age-old practise of lighting up fields to clear paddy stubble before sowing wheat. “This year, a large number of farmers approached us to clear their fields. In some cases, farmers themselves cleared their fields and supplied the paddy straw to us,” said Tirlochan Singh, who collects and transports paddy stubble to a biomass plant at Muktsar in Punjab.

Singh, who operates four bailers, a few dozen trolleys and team of 400-500 workers, has helped biomass plants get an ample supply of paddy stubble. “This year, the harvest period has been short due to late maturity so we could operate for 25-30 days compared to 50 days in the past,” Singh said.

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After a hectic business season in Punjab, aggregators like Singh move their business to other paddy-growing states. “Now I will operate in Chhattisgarh where paddy harvest extends till January,” he said.

Despite the high cost of equipment, the economies of scale are working well for aggregators. They shell out Rs 14-20 lakh to buy bailers made by companies including CLAAS, Shaktiman and New Holland.

Exhorted by the spike in business in the current year, Jaswinder Cheema, an aggregator based at Ahel village in Punjab’s Muktsar district, plans to double the number of bailers to four by next season.

Currently, an aggregator sells a quintal of bailed stubble at Rs 150-170 to local biomass plants. Around Rs 50 goes into transportation and labour costs. “Stubble needs to be collected within a radius of 20-25 kilometres of the plant to sustain financial viability,” said Chemma.

These aggregators have been encouraged by growing awareness and have invested in modern equipment including bailers, choppers and rakers to feed fuel to the projects. “A large number of workers get employed for over two months and a lot of machines are hired,” he said.

Stockpiling the biomass is a major hindrance for plant operators, as an acre of space can store only around 50,000 quintals, said a plant operator. A 10 MW plant needs 10-15 lakh quintals to operate for 8-9 months.


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