Thursday, February 22, 2024

Air pollution: Stubble burning will continue to choke Delhi

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As the time for stubble burning nears, the small farmer, with neither lobby nor clout, becomes the easy target. The ideal solution would be to give him Rs 100 per quintal for not burning the stubble.

By Justice (Retd) Kamaljit Singh Garewal

Back in the late 1960s, high-yielding and short-duration varieties of wheat and rice were introduced in Punjab (and Haryana). The yields were high and so the incomes of farmers shot up significantly. This was the so called Green Revolution. India finally became self-sufficient in food. And farmers became progressive and took to scientific farming, innovative practices, technology, fertilisers and insecticides. This gave a further impetus to the agricultural revolution which was underway.

After 10 years, a slow and steady slide began. It has now acquired very serious proportions with depletion of underground water, degradation of soil by fertilisers and insecticides, indebtedness, suicides and spread of cancer. Add to this, farmers selling their few acres to send children abroad to seek greener pastures. Abuse of drugs by the Punjab youth is another off-shoot of the crisis. Every village has landless workers, labourers and artisans who depend on the harvest to earn some money. These thoughts have been far from policymakers’ minds, even though there is serious concern about pollution caused by stubble burning. Decisions are made in air-conditioned comfort, before computers, far from paddy fields, where small farmers toil on their few acres.

Does anyone seriously think that the agrarian crisis, building up for decades, can vanish without remunerative prices for crops, based on the recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission (2007)? For 13 long years, farmers have been short-changed. Policymakers have provided no reasons for denial of the Swaminathan Commission’s scientifically fixed price which yields reasonable profit. 

Punjab, Haryana, and a few districts of western Uttar Pradesh are due to start burning paddy residue. Wild fires from about 50,000 farms will raise huge volumes of smoke, making people in Delhi seriously worried. But no one understands the compulsions of the paddy farmers. The entire North India is harvesting paddy. This will be quickly followed by clearing the fields to sow wheat or plant potato. The time window is only a fortnight and a bit. And the time for removing the stubble has come. The best, the quickest, the surest way to clear the paddy fields is by setting the stubble on fire. The paddy farmer sees nothing wrong in doing this.

After checking the wind direction, a camp fire will be lit in one corner of the field. The wind is almost always blowing from the north-west towards the National Capital Region (NCR).

And, voila! The capital shall be smoked out for a month or two. The question is who to blame and what is to be done about it.

North India is the rice bowl of the country, but it does not eat rice and has no need for paddy cultivation, except as a cash crop. No other autumn crop, like maize and cotton, fetch the same profit. The main crop in the north is wheat, the staple diet of the people. Paddy is planted after wheat, but farmers are prohibited by law from transplanting before mid-June to save water levels from falling. Three and a half months later, harvesting begins and so do the fires.

The above is from a Punjabi farmer’s perspective more than 250 km from Delhi and NCR. Farmers of Haryana and western UP are a bit closer. But the November smog has other more serious causes like over population, vehicular pollution, fires from landfills and dumping grounds, burning of garbage in the absence of proper disposal and dust from roads and construction sites. Stubble burning of crop residue is, of course, listed as a significant cause.

To be fair, the Punjab government has been seized of the problem since late September when alerts were received from its north where farmers plant vegetables immediately after paddy. A massive awareness drive is on to comply with the directions of the Supreme Court. Central scheme for in situ crop management through machines like balers/rakers are in force. These machines are being supplied to farmers’ groups and co-operative societies. Meetings of stakeholders have been held and orders issued to magistrates under Section 144 CrPC to take immediate action against defaulters. But the larger issue remains.

The best way to harvest paddy is by a hand held sickle, which leaves little or no stubble. This operation is labour intensive and the shortage of labour is there for all to see. Then there are harvesters which do the job quickly, but do not cut close to the ground, leaving stubble behind. Happy Seeder is another solution which helps the farmer to sow wheat in the same field, immediately after the paddy harvest. This is a viable alternative to conventional practices. But Happy Seeder costs upwards of Rs 1.50 lakh. There is also a 50 percent subsidy. Another good, though very expensive option, is baler/raker. It clears about 30 acres in a day and bales the paddy straw, but costs a prohibitive Rs 20 lakh. Baling has many other disadvantages such as what to do with the bales. These cannot be stored in the fields as they make them uncultivable for three years.

The ideal solution is to give each farmer Rs 100 per quintal for not burning stubble. An acre produces about 30 quintals, therefore, it works out to Rs 3,000 per acre. This is peanuts, only an additional 1.86 percent of MSP, which is Rs 1,868 for this year. This proposal was shot down by a report of the Environment Pollution Con­trol Authority (EPCA) on the specious ground that it would amount to a reverse incentive and be violative of the polluter pay principle. In a few days, the Supreme Court is actually going to rule whether Rs 100 should be withheld from MSP till the farmer presents proof of not burning stubble. Do we want to gain respect of the farmers or earn ridicule? The real issues have been side lined once again.

The question which arises is whether the above well-known polluter pay principle would at all apply if a farmer is paid a small amount to clear the stubble without putting fire to it. EPCA calls it undue reverse incentive to farmers if they do not burn stubble. As compared to this, the suggestion coming from EPCA is to provide subsidy to the farmers to buy machines to till the residue back into the soil. It has also been suggested that the Agricultural Costs & Price Commission may look into it and provide additional funds for better crop management. What a contradiction in terms. We shall not pay Rs 100 per quintal but recommend funds for crop management at an additional expense of Rs 1,160 crore for machinery. No farmer wants to burn stubble. Farmers are willing to dispose it off in a proper manner if given the incentive, but no one is listening.

The polluter pays principle imposes liability on the person who pollutes the environment to compensate for the damage caused and return the environment to its original state, regardless of the intent. The Supreme Court has incorporated this principle as part of the environmental law regime. This is all very well, but this principle cannot block an incentive to farmers not to burn stubble. Such convoluted thinking of environmentalists, who have never visited villages and seen paddy being harvested, deserves to be rejected.

The paddy farmer who burns stubble is not the only one contributing to Delhi’s smog. He is a small farmer; nine out of ten farmers own less than a hectare. A small amount of money would help him in clearing his fields for the next sowing. There are other polluters as well, too numerous to count, who cause very serious environmental damage. But the small farmer, with neither lobby nor clout, is always an easy target for the blame game.

One is reminded of lines in a folk song: “A false hearted lover is worse than a thief, a thief will just rob you of all that you save, but a false hearted lover will lead you to the grave.”

—The writer is former judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York

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