There are solutions to Delhi’s pollution crisis
Instead of paddy, farmers have to be incentivised to move to millets
It feels like a war. The hapless farmers of Punjab and Haryana pitted against the angry, breathless urbanites of the National Capital Region. The farmers are burning paddy stubble, contributing to between a fifth to a third of the air pollution in Delhi these days. This has pushed the air quality to unliveable levels. It is endangering the lives and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s also poisoning the farmers themselves.
It’s ironic. Paddy needs water, but Punjab’s water tables have fallen precipitously. To conserve water, farmers were asked to delay paddy sowing in time for the rains. At the other end of the paddy cycle, the new scheme left little time between the paddy harvest and the next sowing season. There isn’t enough time to pull out the stubble by hand, for sowing the next crop on time is critical.
I’ve met several women who’ve been plucking out stubble from the fields. They appreciate the stubble — it means adding to their meagre annual income. The stubble is mixed with greens as fodder in the winter. One of them told me that they were too few in number to replace burning with plucking in such a short window of time. One might argue that in public interest, it’s worth using the MGNREGS instrument to ensure stubble is manually handled, not turned to char. But that’s an idea that requires a smart policy intervention based on inter-state coordination in a political ecosystem. During my discussions on stubble burning from several farmers, I’ve been surprised by their dismissal of the Happy Seeder (a technology I was optimistic about) for financial, logistical and social reasons.
The only sustainable way forward is to work with farmers to change what is planted. The best crop option is millets, as many themselves point out. Apart from using very little water, millets are suited for the land, and can be climate-resilient. They are highly nutritious. But, this would mean giving up the rice option.
Back in Delhi, the demand is growing for Punjab to control the farmers. The chief minister says there’s little he can do unless states act against the farmers. Meanwhile, everyone’s breathing poisoned air.
The crisis requires new kinds of cooperation. Delhi can prevent its annual health catastrophe by creating markets for these nutritious millets. What if Punjab and Haryana included millets in their mid-day meals in schools? Apart from positive health outcomes for children, this could also be a fix for an earlier, polluting policy flaw. Delhi could offer to work with Punjab to identify how much millet supply it can procure and consume next year, and pilot a downstream project in select schools. The lessons should be incorporated to scale up and feed children with millets more frequently. Punjab should do this too. But it should also work with specific districts to grow millets and incentivise this change by guaranteeing prices, in coordination with Delhi.
It’s time to go beyond looking at the issue as a zero-sum game.
Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi must come together.