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Take farmers on board to address stubble burning

The SC should hear out the farmers on why they are bent on burning paddy straw in the fields despite being aware of its implications.

Take farmers on board to address stubble burning

Unabated: Burning of stubble has been going on year after year despite various advisories. Tribune photo



Ranjit Singh Ghuman

Professor of Eminence, Guru Nanak Dev University

The burning of paddy straw in Punjab and areas surrounding Delhi no doubt contributes to the worsening of air quality in the capital and adversely impacts the health of residents, but it is only a fraction of the truth.

Several scientific studies have shown that the burning of stubble in Punjab is contributing 15-20 per cent to Delhi’s pollution. The rest is being caused by vehicular traffic (vehicles plying in lakhs in the NCR), the industry and the infrastructure sector. The weather conditions, especially very low wind velocity, make the situation worse because fine dust particles remain stranded in the air for days together. Scanty or no rainfall in November is also a contributory factor.

Paradoxically, Punjab’s air quality, despite the burning of stubble, is better than that of Delhi. Clearly, the burning of straw by Punjab’s farmers cannot be held solely responsible for Delhi’s very poor air quality. Nonetheless, it does not warrant burning of straw.

The Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) are convinced that the worsening of Delhi’s air is largely due to the burning of paddy straw in Punjab. There is no denying the fact that the state’s farmers burn straw in the fields, maybe more than half of the 22 million tonnes produced every year. Stubble burning is also taking place in Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh (in close proximity to Delhi), but the farmers of Punjab are being demonised.

The apex court has issued stern directions to the Punjab Government to take strict action against those farmers who set paddy straw on fire. It has even suggested the denial of MSP on paddy to those farmers who burn stubble in the fields. “The stick must also follow the carrot. Why should people who, despite all observations of the court and despite counselling, continue violating the law be allowed to benefit monetarily?” the SC Bench has asked. But this is easier said than done.

The SC has also raised the issues of the depleting water table and the impending desertification of Punjab. The court, however, does not have expertise in every field (as aptly acknowledged by the SC) and thus must take the advice of experts about the implication of its suggestions and recommendations. Another catch in the whole process is that the farmers’ viewpoint is missing. The Supreme Court should hear out the farmers on why they are bent on burning paddy straw in the fields despite being aware of its health and legal implications. The SC should also seek an action-taken report from the government about the incentives offered to farmers for not burning straw, as suggested by it and the NGT.

Nonetheless, the unabated burning of stubble has been going on year after year despite the advisories of the government and the NGT. The farmers who put crop residue on fire also face legal action and fines. Ironically, there is hardly any noteworthy positive outcome over the years. Such a scenario necessitates a serious review of all measures (in-situ as well as ex-situ management) taken so far to manage paddy straw. Is it due to the inadequate supply of machinery or the wide differences between the government’s prescriptions and the farmers’ circumstances? Or is it due to the absence of a holistic understanding of the underlying socio-economic causes of the problem and piecemeal measures? Past experience says that once the worst is over, there is hardly any public or official discourse till the next season. Perhaps here lies the crux of the entire problem. What is required is to prepare a medium and long-term policy on the basis of a comprehensive study of all dimensions of the problem, taking the farmers on board. On the basis of such a policy, the government and farmers can adopt a multidimensional strategy and implement it in the mission mode.

Significantly, the spectacular increase in the area under paddy in Punjab since the 1970s was the result of an enabling environment created by compatible policy prescriptions and the country’s foodgrain requirement. The area under paddy has increased from 9 per cent of the net sown area of Punjab in 1970-71 to around 75 per cent now.

To meet the country’s demand for rice, Punjab has been virtually exporting its ground and canal water. For the past over 15 years, the Union Government has been advising Punjab to substantially decrease area under paddy, but it has instead been on the rise. Notably, neither Punjab nor the Central Government took any serious note of the two reports (1986 and 2002) on crop diversification in the state. The Punjab Government remained complacent and the Centre has only been issuing advisories. Effective implementation of the MSP regime for alternative crops may be of some help.

Even now, neither any policy prescription nor any alternative crops (which could be at least as remunerative as paddy) are available to replace paddy. Under such circumstances, farmers and the state government alone would not be in a position to phase out paddy. The Union Government must help the state and its farmers if it honestly wants to save Punjab from impending desertification and the country from food insecurity. While reducing area under paddy cultivation, which is a must to address the rapidly depleting water table, long-term food security and farmers’ economics must also be considered.

#Environment #Farm Fires #Pollution #Stubble Burning


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