Crop burning: No end in sight
The harvest season has begun in northwest India, and so has stubble burning and the unending search for a permanent solution to a problem that leads to severe air pollution in the region, especially in Delhi and the National Capital Region, every winter. According to a report in this paper on Monday, stubble burning may continue this year because central subsidies on straw management machinery are not attractive enough for small farmers to switch to them. Last week, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, saying that the Centre must look into the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s (IARI) suggestion of converting stubble to manure using a chemical. Last year, an analysis of satellite data from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center suggested no decline in the number of crop stubble fires in 2018 compared to 2017, despite the new policy for in-situ management of crop residue.
The challenge of disposing agricultural waste in India is significant. According to IARI, the net cropped area is 141.4 million hectares, and crop residues are estimated to be around 600 million tonnes every year, with generation being the highest in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra, Punjab and Gujarat. Over the years, several policies have been proposed to address the issue, but they have been mainly in-situ technologies. The failure of these policies show that it is time to try out new multi-pronged approaches to tackle the problem: Incentivising farmers to shift away from water-guzzling paddy and diversifying cropping patterns is one. Uutilising crop residue in power plants, brick kilns and biomass gasifiers is another. A report by the Council on Energy Environment and Water suggests that increasing farmers’ accessibility to stubble managing equipment by setting up more custom hiring centres and promoting rental models may work. Last year, Punjab and Haryana provided incentives to farmers, at Rs 2,500 per acre, for managing the residue in alternative ways. But it was announced in the last week of November after much of the residue had already been cleared and was dropped this year after reports of the funds being misused at the panchayat level.
For any multi-pronged approach to work, there needs to be coordination between four groups: Farmers, states, Centre and scientists. At present, there seems to a disconnect among all these groups and a lack of political will to find a solution. Mere lip-service from political leaders — the farm protests complicate the situation further this year; any policing move to control stubble burning will be seen as anti-farmer — is unlikely to take us forward.