Don’t penalise farmers for Delhi’s air pollution
Not to take any more risk with human health, the Supreme Court has reinstated the ban it imposed on sale of fire crackers in the Delhi-NCR region.
The “direct evidence of deterioration of air quality at alarming levels” that the Supreme Court cited to justify the ban has another player. Paddy stubble burning by farmers during the same period in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and in the outskirts of Delhi, has also been blamed for chocking the Capital.
What forces farmers to burn the paddy stubbles is the short window available between the harvesting of paddy and the sowing of the next wheat crop. In a fortnight or so, farmers have to harvest the crop, market it, and also undertake sowing operations for the next rabi crop. Burning of paddy straw therefore is the easiest way out. Unfortunately, farmer’s compulsion that leaves him little option but to burn the crop residues has not been understood properly. Instead of helping the farmers, the entire effort is to coerce them into submission.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in Punjab alone. As the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had observed: “70% of the land covered by agricultural activity was put on fire by the farmers of Punjab who burnt farm residue,” further adding that stubble burning shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%. “The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide rises by 7% and 2.1% respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems. Also, it was stated that soil loses a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur, the total loss of nutrients being estimated at 1.5-lakh tonnes per annum.
Farmers are aware of the environmental fall-out. But they need monetary help. Punjab farmers have been demanding Rs 6,000 per acre as a compensation package for the additional costs they have to incur to take measures that prevents burning of crop residues. Instead of providing any financial support, farmers who continue to resort to burning of paddy straw are being penalised, put behind bars, and threatened with withdrawal of farm subsidies. As if this is not enough, a ‘red entry’ against the plot number where stubble burning takes place is now being initiated in the land records.
The farming community is furious. Agitating farmers have now openly flouted the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on burning of paddy straw, and a direct confrontation between the agitating farmers and the government is on an anvil. Already, several farmer unions have given call to defy the ban, and surely the incidences of crop residues being put to fire are also increasing. The confrontation is likely to worsen in the days to come.
Knowing that imposing any coercive measure against the farming community already reeling under severe distress will be politically incorrect, the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is seeking an incentive of Rs 2,000-crore from the Centre to ensure that farmers remove paddy straw without burning it. “We have demanded that the Centre should give Rs 100 per quintal, which comes to roughly Rs 2,000-crore.” And he is right. After all, stubble burning is a socio-environment problem, and the society has to share the burden. Why can’t a proportion of the Rs 50,000-crore proposed economic stimulus package be used for address the problem of stubble burning?
It is a question of priorities. Within weeks of the inflation figures showing a rising trend, the government enhanced the dearness allowance (DA) for the central government employees from the existing 4% to 5%. The hike in DA by just 1% creates an annual additional burden of Rs 3,068.26 crore. If only the government had withheld the 1% increase in DA instalment and instead diverted the resources to address the severe environmental consequences arising from stubble burning, the entire problem could have been fixed by now.
There are two immediate steps the NGT need to ensure. First, ask the government to provide a compensation of at least Rs 200 per quintal to paddy farmers. I am seeking a higher compensation package because the labour costs have already skyrocketed. Also, there is no need to provide any more subsidies for machines like Happy Seeder, Straw Reeper, Chopper, Rotavator etc. Leave it to the farmers. Secondly, make it mandatory for the combine harvester machines to incorporate a bailer, which harvests and bales in one pass. Such a technology is already available for corn. If only NGT had tried to make it mandatory for the combine harvesters to bring in the new technology, crop burning would have been easily relegated to the past.
Devinder Sharma is founder trustee, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad
The views expressed are personal