Punjab saw more farm fires this time than last year. Its farmers are being blamed for the air pollution crisis in north India in the past few weeks.(HT Photo)
Punjab saw more farm fires this time than last year. Its farmers are being blamed for the air pollution crisis in north India in the past few weeks.(HT Photo)

5 lessons from Punjab’s failed drive to curb stubble burning

Punjab was expected to put an end to the banned practice of stubble burning or farm fires. But it failed to deliver due to its half-hearted efforts that ranged from crackdown to cash incentive. Not surprisingly, it has drawn the Supreme Court’s wrath like never before.
By Ramesh Vinayak and Navneet Sharma | Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON NOV 26, 2019 11:56 AM IST

Ahead of the paddy harvesting in September, the Punjab government chose to make Guru Nanak Dev’s verse ‘pavan guru, pani pita, mata dharat mahat’ (air is guru, water the father, earth the eminent mother) as the centrepiece of its message against stubble burning, one of the causes of the region’s pollution scourge year after year. It was hoped that Guru’s eternally-relevant exhortation on environment would resonate with farmers more than ever before as the paddy season overlapped with the 550th ‘Parkash Purb’ of the first Sikh master.

Three months on, official figures show Punjab saw more farm fires this time than last year while their number doubled in Kapurthala district where the town of Sultanpur Lodhi associated with Guru Nanak was at the heart of the religious celebrations.

It is not without reason that Punjab and its farmers, who led the country’s Green Revolution that make her self-sufficient in foodgrains, are being blamed for the pollution crisis in north India over the past few weeks.

The opprobrium generated by the farm fires, plumes of thick, black smoke and the dip in air quality was not entirely unexpected.

The state, which is the country’s third-largest producer of rice, had has been witnessing widespread paddy residue burning. Of roughly 202 lakh metric tonne (MT) of stubble left behind after harvesting in 31 lakh hectare of paddy crop in 2018, almost half ( 99.60 lakh MTs, to be precise) was burnt with 51,751 farm fires reported from across Punjab up to November 25.

The state was expected to put an end to this banned practice with a helping hand from the Centre for ‘in situ management of crop residue. Last year, the Union agriculture ministry rolled out a centrally-funded scheme to support Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to address air pollution and to subsidize machinery required for in-situ ( in the farm fields) management of paddy residue. It entailed an outlay of Rs 1151 crore for two years.

Being foretold was to be forewarned, but it failed to deliver despite half-hearted efforts that ranged from crackdown to cash incentive. This year, the number of fire has escalated to 52,942 which is a spike of 1,191 as compared to last year.

Not surprisingly, Punjab has drawn the Supreme Court’s ire.

Here are the five takeaways from the state’s failure to stem the stubble trouble:

AVOID MULTIPLICITY OF OVERSIGHTS, ADOPT A MUTLI-PRONGED plan

The stubble burning problem is too complicated for a quick- fix solution to work. What complicated the mess this time was the involvement of too many players who took upon themselves the roles of trouble shooters: NGT, courts, environment pollution (prevention and control) authority, agriculture departments, state pollution control boards. They worked in silos and at cross purposes, leading to patchy planning and shoddy implementation. “Only experts were missing from all this,” chuckles a top Punjab official. The lesson is that the government needs to follow a long-term, multi-pronged strategy of pushing agriculture mechanisation, giving incentives to farmers to shun the practice and promoting other uses of crop residue. At present, over 12 lakh MTs of paddy is being utilised for biomass-based power projects. Other options such as use of paddy straw for bio gas production and conversion to ethanol are available, say experts.

A MATTER OF POLITICAL WILL

The farmers being an important political constituency, the state government adopted a soft approach from the start. When farm fires started, no action was taken. The farmers’ unions, who have the proclivity to get into agitation mode at the slightest opportunity, also openly gave a call to farmers to defy the stubble burning ban and even organised protests where paddy residue was set on fire. What was not lost on anti-stubble fires crusaders was the fact that the entire political executive was missing in action on the ground. No ministers or MLAs made any statements disapproving farmers resorting to fires. Result: The official drive failed to turn into a politically-led mass campaign.

The state authorities started cracking the whip only after the apex court gave them a dressing-down. Result: More than 1,700 FIRs against farmers. This, in turn, has ignited the bushfires of farmers’ protests. “As a border state, Punjab can ill-afford to create a law and order problem arising out a wholesale FIRs on an issue that is essentially agrarian,’’ says a top police official. “The criminal action doesn’t help when delinquents are in lakhs”.

PERILS OF AN INCOHERANT PUNITIVE ACTION

Officials at the forefront of the crusade against stubble burning rue how a conflicting order of the Punjab and Haryana high court in mid-October turned out to be a trigger for a sudden surge in fires. The court ruling, in effect, directed the authorities not to charge penalties mandated by the NGT, on the ground that farmers were distressed economically.

It, however, favoured harsh punitive steps, including FIRs and arrests. “This message spread like wildfire among farmers,” says an official of Punjab agriculture department, adding: “That day on, we were fighting a losing battle and the farm fires became unstoppable.” By that time, a legal course correction was initiated, the damage had been done.

GAPS galore IN MECHANISATION PLAN

Last year, the Centre rolled out an agricultural mechanisation scheme for farm machinery banks and subsidy to individual farmers for procurement of machinery for in-situ management of crop residue by retention and incorporation into the soil, but it failed to produce the desired results due to sluggish implementation. In 2018, Punjab got 28,000 subsidised machines. This year, the target was 24,000 machines but it fell short by 3,000.

“Lots of farmers, particularly with small land holdings, opted out of the scheme after the high court restrained levying of penalties” says Kahan Singh Pannu, secretary, agriculture.

If the supply of machinery carried on till November 11, a date by which wheat sowing was almost completed, in 2018-19, there was not only a dip in the number of crop residue machines delivered to the farmers. The ones which got delivered were also delayed even though the state authorities were told to ensure that these are in the fields for use by September 30.

INCENTIVISE SWITCH TO TECHNOLOGY

Before the harvesting began, chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh wrote to the Centre for cost compensation of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy residue management to stop farmers from burning it in the open fields. There was no response until the apex court directed the state governments on November 6 to pay the incentive money to small and marginal farmers who did not burn their paddy straw.

Amarinder promptly lauded the apex court’s move “to recognize a need for financial help to farmers to end stubble burning”, but hoped for the Centre to come to the state’s rescue. Punjab announced Rs 2,500 per acre as compensation for not burning stubble, limiting the incentive’s scope to the farmers owning up to five acres.

Though it did seem to have an impact, 5,151 stubble burning incidents have been reported since then which, according to officials, could be the handiwork of farmers with bigger land holdings. Inadequate execution of the compensation by the state authorities did not help the situation.

Pannu, widely credited with leading the crusade against the menace, argues that subsidising the stubble management machinery alone is not the panacea. “You can take the horse to the water but can’t make it drink it,’’he says, making the case for two-fold solution. Which is provide technology to manage the straw but incentivise its use to induce farmers to make the switch.

That’s precisely what the Supreme Court has advocated by asking the government to give financial reward to those not burning the residue. A punitive action against those not making the switch even after incentive can be an inbuilt deterrent.

But, in a severely cash-strapped Punjab, the million dollar question is: where will the money come from?

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