EVEN as Delhi has deferred the implementation of the odd-even scheme, there is no end to the political slugfest over air pollution in the national capital. Farmers have been caught in the crossfire. “There cannot be a political battle every time... Delhi cannot be made to go through this year after year,” the Supreme Court observed.
While the anger is justified in view of the high level of air toxicity in the National Capital Region, the vexed problem cannot be addressed simply by strict policing and deployment of flying squads to check farm fires. It requires a better understanding of the reasons behind the farm crisis and appropriate steps that need to be taken to tackle the menace of stubble burning. Considering that Punjab alone produces 220 lakh tonnes of paddy stubble every year, which is too huge a volume to be taken care of either by the government or the private sector or both, there is no way to avert the public health crisis created by farm fires without involving the farming community. Farmers are not the villains of the story, as shrieking TV anchors have tried to convey; instead, they can be partners in extinguishing the fires.
In this openly played-out tug of war, with political accusations intensifying, the biggest casualty is the sidelining of crop diversification. Despite all the talk and efforts being made for crop diversification, the area under paddy in Punjab has, in fact, expanded, reaching almost 32 lakh hectares.
At this critical juncture, as several experts advocate for a shift away from paddy in the long run, it requires an effective policy design that outlines the diversification roadmap. Casually demanding the cessation of paddy procurement in Punjab, with the thought that farmers will be compelled to stop paddy cultivation if they don’t receive the minimum support price (MSP), is myopic. Those who make such statements have little idea that an anticipated decrease in rice production this year by 3-4 million tonnes has already compelled the Centre to ban the export of non-basmati rice and impose duties on basmati exports. The phase-out strategy must, therefore, be carefully considered.
Unlike the industry, it should be clear that agriculture cannot be expected to close its operations one day and start afresh after a few months. It requires a well-thought-out policy mix and an action plan that the Centre and the state governments have to collectively implement. It isn’t as easy as saying: stop paddy procurement and provide MSP for millets. Agriculture doesn’t operate that way. Let it also be clear that farmers are not opposed to any move to diversify from the existing cropping pattern. Give them a viable alternative and they will surely adopt it.
Meanwhile, the management of crop residue through industrial consumption has already led to the establishment of a significant number of biomass and fuel plants. Approximately 50 per cent of the total crop residue, roughly about 110 lakh tonnes, is claimed to be taken care of by ex-situ management. Further, the Punjab Pollution Control Board is under pressure to set up more fuel-based industries to incorporate available biomass. The planning of more such industries in the years to come implies an increasing dependence on paddy straw.
Similarly, Punjab already has 1.37 lakh machines for stubble management. On an average, for every 24 hectares under paddy, a machine is available. The plan is to make available one machine for every hectare. A number of machines that were supplied earlier on subsidy have now become redundant. Now, the demand is for the baler, which costs at least Rs 18 lakh. This begs the question: Why were the balers not promoted earlier? After all, this machine is not a new invention.
With more than 5 lakh tractors, along with their accessory implements, in operation, against the actual need for 1 lakh tractors, the introduction of new farm machinery for stubble management has added to the machine load. This has already transformed Punjab into a junkyard for machines, and in the years to come, the state may face another problem. Farm manufacturers as well as the biomass-driven fuel and energy units will need a continuous flow of raw material. No industry would like the raw material to be in short supply. Simply put, stubble management practices do pose a setback to crop diversification.
Going beyond politics, I think the time has come to devise a two-point strategy to stop farm fires in the immediate future and draw out an environmentally sustainable, diversified crop plan for the long run.
Firstly, although the number of farm fires is decreasing, farmers themselves have been saying that they would be able to manage stubble in situ if a small incentive covering the additional costs is provided to them, and that too well in time. The request by Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann to provide farmers with an incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre — with the Centre contributing Rs 1,500, and
Rs 1,000 to be borne together by the Punjab and Delhi governments — makes economic sense. If the incentive is distributed among farmers in advance in August and implemented effectively, it can put a stop to farm fires from the next year.
If Rs 15 lakh crore of bad corporate loans in the past 10 years can be written off, and another Rs 3.45 lakh crore outstanding with 16,000 wilful defaulters (people who have the money but don’t pay back) can be practically waived under a compromise formula with the banks, there is no reason why financial constraints should come in the way of helping the farming community.
Secondly, the Centre and the state should formulate a time-bound strategy to move away from paddy. This strategy must include an economic design, procurement policy and adequate infrastructure to make it not only sustainable but also profitable and economically viable for farmers.
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