India’s ‘Filthy’ Air Needs Political Solution, Not Blame Game

Amaan Bali
·7-min read

US President Donald Trump has called India’s air “filthy” while debating Joe Biden on climate. Rather than getting offended, let’s look around. It is that time of the year again when Delhi turns into a gas chamber and the smoke from Punjab reaches Delhi faster than the cries of the farmers.

This time of the year also brings with it the blame game between chief ministers of Delhi and Punjab.

Captain Amrinder Singh and Arvind Kejriwal.
Captain Amrinder Singh and Arvind Kejriwal.

Why Farmers Burn the Paddy Stubble

In Punjab and Haryana, the paddy crop is usually harvested between the first and last week of October. The wheat crop is, then, sown from first week of November. Agriculture experts indicate, and research shows, that any delay in sowing wheat crop leads to poor produce. This gives the farmers a very short window of 15 days. These farmers regularly complain about the menace of rice straw – a product of mechanised agriculture – exacerbated by shortage of labour and lack of time.

When paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher, the machine leaves behind a significant length of stubble on the field. This prevents other machines from sowing wheat seeds.

With only 10-15 days between the rice-harvesting season and the wheat-sowing time, farmers often burn the stubble. An estimated 11 million tonne of stubble is burnt. If we listen to farmers they blame the conspiracy by companies like Monsanto and the laws enacted by Punjab for preservation of ground water, which results in burning of paddy crop residue (stubble).

Also Read: Stubble Burning Worsens Delhi Air Pollution, But Is There A Plan?

  • When paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher, the machine leaves behind a significant length of stubble on the field.

  • With only 10-15 days between the rice-harvesting season and the wheat-sowing time, farmers often burn the stubble.

  • Deflecting the issue has worked in the past years as well and by the way it is going, it is working this time around as well.

  • Many farmers may not have received the amount announced by Centre for stubble management.

  • Punjab government has complained about lack of funds citing Covid-19 and centre is unwilling to extend any help.

  • Hostilities between farmers and govt have increased due to ongoing farmers’ protests against the Farm Bills.

  • Incentivising farmers and giving them their due as suggested by SC will solve the problem.

Farmers Furious Due to Fines, Farm Bills & Non Receipt of Funds

The mudslinging this year has already started with Delhi chief minister targeting Punjab and asking Captain Amrinder Singh to check stubble burning. Apart from Lokur committee set up by SC to monitor the incidents of stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and UP, Punjab State has itself jumped into action with information campaign and spree of fines on farmers burning the stubble.

While the issue may appear trivial, Punjab govt and central government are to be blamed for this problem. Last year, the Supreme court asked the Punjab and Haryana governments to provide Rs 100 per quintal to small farmers to manage the stubble. Given that the average productivity is 25.6 quintal per acre in Punjab, they may receive about Rs 2,560 per acre.

Many farmers may not have received the amount – even though the government has assigned 8,000 nodal officers to oversee this payment exercise, prevent stubble-burning, and increase awareness of alternate technologies.

Punjab government has complained about lack of funds citing Covid-19 and centre is unwilling to extend any help.

The fines imposed on farmers do not work at all. Punjab govt fined errant farmers RS 6.1 crore in 2019. However, they have deposited only Rs 1 lakh thus far. Collecting fines from farmers is difficult, but more importantly doing so creates a hostile environment for local agricultural development functionaries.

Hostilities between farmers and govt have increased due to ongoing farmers’ protests against the Farm Bills. There have been repeated instances of agriculture and nodal officers being locked and chased away by farmers.

Combine Owners Are Also Unhappy With Policies

Punjab government has also been facing wrath of the combine owners. Around 400 combine owners are protesting the installation of a seeder equipment that uproots stubble. This equipment comes at a price of Rs 1.5 lakh, which is subsidised by government of Punjab. None of the combine owners has received any subsidy in the past leading to anger and mistrust.

Another important point highlighted by both farmers and combine owners is that the machine leaves significant length leading to further costs of labour.

An estimated Rs 6000/- per acre is required by farmers using manual labour to uproot stubble government claims can be solved using combines with seeders. The cost using combines turns out to be around Rs 2500/- per acre but the fact that is ignored by govt is that farmers need to use labour even after using the seeders leading to higher expenses. The combine owners are fined Rs 50,000/- for not complying with the order to install the machine.

Also Read: Punjab Crop Burning: How Smog of Confusion is Spread by ‘Experts’

How Big is the Stubble Burning Issue, Really?

Going after farmers every year without offering any help is an act of institutional and constitutional dishonesty among environmentalists, policy makers, and the mudslingers of all political parties alike.

Prakash Javadekar said that stubble burning contributes only 4% to the pollutants in Delhi . The statement might have freed central government from any responsibility that comes along from Captain’s government for funds to tackle stubble burning but it definitely has not solved the issue. Deflecting the issue has worked in the past years as well and by the way it is going, it is working this time around as well.

If farmers and environmentalists from Punjab are to be believed the issue of pollution by stubble is a non-issue.

According to Ominder Dutt, an environmentalist in Punjab, “The issue of stubble burning does not exist for 11months but the issue of industrial pollution in Ludhiana is prevalent, the water has become poisonous in the city but no one wants to address the big fish aka industrialists.” According to Dutt, the wastes from thermal plants of Bathinda, Goindwaal, and industries in Ludhiana have done an irreparable damage to waters of Punjab. He expressed his sadness on dishonesty of environmentalists and politicians going after the farmers and not tackling the actual issues of pollution.

How to Tackle Stubble Burning

Dutt suggests that farmers in Punjab need to move to Nutritious Crop Farming. This is something that Prime minister talked about as well announcing 17 types of seeds. Dutt, however, admits that this has been taken up by farmers with small farms and will not become a wider practice until governments bring in the laws to make MSP on these nutritional crops.

It is both impractical (in view the large number of farmers, running into millions) and also unjust to blame the farmers for the stubble burning. Our focus should be on developing and improving the design of Combine Harvesters that do not leave the stubble behind. Machines with a modified cutter that chops the plant from the bottom, nearer to the base and does not leave behind the stubble are required. The government should strictly regulate and allow only such Combine Harvesters to function that conform to the laid down standards of stubble size.

Incentivising farmers and giving them their due as suggested by SC will solve the problem. The industries which are converting this agri-waste/crop residue into wealth in the form of cattle feed or fuel briquettes, may also be suitably incentivised and subsidised.

(Amaan Bali is Founder, Solar States Energy India. He tweets at @amaanbali. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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