The smoke from Punjab’s paddy fields due to the burning of paddy stubble may have left the national capital in a haze but it’s clear that the state’s environment regulatory body, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), is going easy on defaulters as it has not fined any farmer since October 28 apparently under political pressure.
Punjab goes to the polls in three months and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal has a large support base among farmers which it doesn’t want to lose. Its ally, the BJP, has an urban voter base.
By October 27, a day before the hearing in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the PPCB challaned 736 farmers across the state and fined them Rs 30 lakh of which one-third of the amount was recovered. After October 27, there have been no challans. “The cases of (paddy stubble) burning have reduced considerably, so no more challans,” says a PPCB officer on condition of anonymity.
The opposition Congress termed the initial drive of the PPCB a harassment of farmers. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) also criticised the state government for acting tough on farmers.
In the hearing before the NGT on October 28, the PPCB presented the challan figures, while the state agriculture director expressed helplessness in dealing with the problem due to lack of funds and infrastructure. “We are helpless. There are no machines to manage the stubble. Funds are insufficient. The infrastructure we have can manage stubble on 67,000 hectares but the scale of paddy cultivation is over 30-lakh hectares,” Punjab agriculture director JS Bains says.
According to the agriculture department, the state has means to use 22% of the stubble in seven biomass power plants as fuel, raw material in cardboard industry and a portion as animal fodder.
“80% of stubble is burnt. As the area under cultivation is rising, so is the quantum of stubble. There are modern methods to stop it, but we need funds to buy the machines. A plan needs to be worked out,” says Punjab state farmers commission consultant PS Rangi. Two weeks ago, the agriculture department sent a proposal to the Centre to release Rs 1,600 crore to buy machines to collect the paddy stubble. “The funds earmarked in the Rashtriya Krishi Vigyaan Yojana (RKVY) are insufficient to deal with a problem of this scale,” says an officer.
Bains said the window between paddy harvest and sowing of the next wheat crop is only 10 days so farmers are left with no option but to burn the stubble. “It’s farcical asking farmers to grow more grain and then penalise them,” he says.