Every year at the onset of autumn in India, the northern part of the country faces a recurring problem of air pollution. This has given rise to constant debates and deliberations on the premise which surrounds the phenomena. Multiple factors and factions have shaped up the discourse. Is it stubble burning in the fields of Punjab or is it the construction activities and vehicles pollution in Delhi or is it that bursting crackers in Diwali worsens the case? There are multiple factions debating on the same. Experts and Environmentalists do push the blame on the stubble burning in the fields of Punjab as the major cause of the worsening of this pollution. Even if it is debatable, there tends to exist a correlation between the two phenomena.
Stubble burning is an agricultural practice in which straw stubble, which remains after grains like paddy, wheat etc. are harvested, is burnt in order to make the field suitable for the next harvest. The amount of pollution from the large farms of Punjab contribute heavily to the already shoddy air quality in Delhi. Stubble burning has been practiced in many countries however with the environmental concerns blazing the trail in global affairs, the practice was deemed illegal. The practice is perceived to be in violation of public health concerns.
The practice was brought to the main sphere during the Green Revolution in India during the early 1970s. The increase in the harvests of rice and wheat led to a simultaneous increase in the stubble post-harvest.
What we know-
This year as the pandemic has hit the world, Indian agricultural sector has also suffered blows. Because of the shortage of labour, more farm fires were recorded this year. With the AQI chart hovering over 400, the fingers have been pointed towards the farmers in Punjab. The recent scuffle between Delhi CM office and Punjab CM office on this issue came into light when Capt. Amarinder Singh, the hon’ble CM of Punjab refuted all the claims of stubble burnings taking place in Punjab.
Moreover, a major environmental disaster that awaits the country following the stubble burning is the groundwater depletion. Electoral vendettas have always made it to the headlines when it comes to the farming policy. In 2009, Preservation of Subsoil Water Act was passed in Punjab and Haryana to prevent groundwater depletion. The laws prohibited early cropping of rice in May, postponing it to post monsoon season to preserve groundwater. The law created unintentional problems for the farmers of Punjab and Haryana as they had less time to sow the winter crops after the harvest of paddy. This made the manual labour costly and ineffective; thereby leaving no choice for farmers but to burn the crop residues. At the same time, in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, farmers have to wait till the monsoons as adequate groundwater is not available for cropping paddy. The delay in cropping results in delay in harvest, leaving farmers very little time to sow the next crop. Governments have given free electricity and water to farmers incentivizing the paddy cultivation and fuelling the arguments that these policies are mere political gimmicks to mobilize votes for the parties.
In September- October 2020, with Delhi reporting extreme air pollution and the Central Pollution Control Board reporting “extremely unfavorable” meteorological conditions in Delhi for dispersion of pollutants, the issue has gathered all the more steam . More than 5000 farm fires were registered, which is a 40 percent surge than last year. The debate now is not restricted to health concerns but has entered the political arena. The festival of Diwali often faces criticism because of the fireworks’ celebrations involved; nevertheless the opposition defends the celebrations with whataboutery. Secondly, the subject is seldom addressed during important political and environmental discussions, but used in the capacity of a counter-narrative over the use of crackers during Diwali. It somehow dilutes the gravity of the issue in the public eye.
The underlying debate which recognizes this problem as simple enough to resolve dilutes the general perception about the practice. In India, locally manufactured ‘Happy Seeder’ machines are now in use for the purpose of shredding the crop residues and then spreading it to the field as an alternative for burning of the crops but considering the vicious cycle of indebtedness amongst the majority of the Indian farmers, the idea of using heavy harvesting machines seems infeasible from a policy perspective.
There have been several solutions that have been tried and tested for the problem. The most popular ones are crop diversification and use of Happy Seeders. Previous attempts at crop diversification have not led to fruit-bearing outcomes; instead it has led to drastic decline in agricultural revenue for the cultivators. Differences in the net farm returns and market risks do affect the decision making process that is involved in the crop diversification. Moreover a flawed subsidy structure and a complacent Public Distribution System (PDS) adds to the woes. Distribution of Happy Seeders by the government in the regions of Punjab and Haryana could actually help in managing the crop residues. Government intervention is quite necessary as these heavy machines are unaffordable. The simplified argument over here is that the 2009 reforms addressed groundwater problems and if the 2009 Act is repealed, the fear of another issue with groundwater depletion will take up the rounds. The questions are- Can a simple public policy address all these issues or ultimately the blame of the hazardous air pollution will be on the farmers? Years of oppression, being forced to grow a crop just for the food self-sufficiency and currently the new Farm laws have already generated a nasty rift between the agriculturists and the policymakers. A robust policy to address the key contemporary issues is the best solution. A policy that could deal with the stubble burning without creating further environmental problems and at the same time help minimize the irrational subsidies in the agricultural sector would be a challenging one for the administrators but can surely increase the propensity of a tangible change in the sector that still employs more than 50% of the country’s workforce.
Kshitanjay Sondhi (firstname.lastname@example.org)