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Delhi pollution: Before blaming farmers, take a look at what is choking them

'It's not the crackers, the farmers are burning crops’ is an argument that's doing the rounds in the national capital. Union Environment Minister Anil Dave called a meeting of all environment ministers of NCR states and concluded that crop burning in Delhi’s neighbouring states amounts to 20 percent of its pollution. Eleven farmers of Bathinda and Barnala districts of Punjab have recently been booked for burning paddy stubble against the orders of the district magistrate. Last week, in Dosanjh, the police booked a farmer under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). Penalty has also been imposed in 1,406 cases of stubble burning in Haryana. The crops are no longer harvested by hand, so the plant was cut from its base. In the era of machine harvesting, the plant is only cut from the spike and cannot be consumed by animals. The farmers are only given 15 days to sow the next plant (wheat), and market and thresh the first one. Does multiple harvesting leave them with any other option but to burn the spike? No.

Had this been the prime cause of smog, wouldn’t Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab, also been affected by smog? As per the Haerbin Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) on 7 November, Chandigarh was 162 (Unhealthy: Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects) and some regions in Delhi were as high as 999 (Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects). On the same index, Rohtak’s air quality was 47 (Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk).

Representational image. Pallavi Rebbapragada

Representational image. Pallavi Rebbapragada

Instead of monitoring the trend of multiple harvesting, compensation amounts for farmers are being fixed. A farm on less than 2 acres is liable to pay Rs 2,500; for a five-acre farm, the amount is Rs 5,000, and farms more than five acres are liable to pay Rs 15,000. In Punjab, these penalties were decided after the keen interest shown by the National Green Tribunal in the state’s affairs. Farmers, especially the ones who consider this a right, wanted to go on protest (dharnas, a practice the Delhi government is familiar with) but weren’t allowed to.

But that’s not the only thing choking a farmer’s life. On 2 September, a note with action taken and many other proposed measures, titled 'Farmer centric issues in agriculture and allied sectors' was prepared by top Secretaries to the government of India. The note accessed by Firstpost revealed a huge gap in financial demand and allocation for drought-proofing agriculture.

It revealed that the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP) is suffering due to severe inadequacy of resources for large projects. Against a requirement of Rs 29,000 crore for completion of 46 projects that are near completion, the annual budgetary allocation is a mere Rs 3,000 crore under AIBP. The note said that an upfront provision of financial resources through National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) financing mechanism can help in creating an additional 1.1 million hectare irrigation in one year and an additional 3.4 million hectares over the next three years.

Commenting on the note, Devender Sharma, agricultural scientist and senior food and trade policy analyst, gives the example of Vidarbha and Marathwada. "Economists say there is only 18 percent irrigation in these areas and talk about making large-scale investments on new international techniques. Punjab has 98 percent irrigation cover (America has 14 percent) and its paddy yield is 60 quintals per hectare (it is 67 percent in China), then why are three to four farmers committing suicide in Punjab every day?" he asks. Between 1 April and 12 May, a total of 73 farmers have died in Punjab despite the fact that the production rate of cereals (wheat, rice and maize) in the state is higher than America, France, Italy and Japan. “The government must focus on micro-irrigation and revive ponds and tanks instead of spending crores on massive irrigation plans,” says Sharma.

As per the economic survey of 2016, the average income of a farming household of five people across 17 states of India is Rs 20,000 a year.

“What will the farmers do with access to credit, when they don’t have income?” ask experts.

The note highlights the problem of the growing dark regions of depleting water reserves and suggested the solution that without any additional budgetary resources, five lakh farm ponds and dug wells can be constructed under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) every year. This will also make it possible to maintain two lakh solar pumps with micro-irrigation. This is expected to cost Rs 8,000 crore that can come from the current budgetary allocations under the programme. By convergently utilising 30 percent subsidy from Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and 65 percent loan from the power company, a meagre 5 percent farmer contribution can provide access to sustainable water for enhancing productivity, it states.

Ramesh Chand, agriculture expert at the NITI Aayog, says the two important issues of the farmers are market risk and production risk, and are being addressed. “The government has taken several initiatives to raise the income of the farmers and secondly, to cover risk in prices and risk in production. Aside from the Krishi Sinchai Yojana, Fasal Bima Yojana and Enam, an electronic trading platform for the national agriculture market, the government is coming out with timely measures but their effectiveness depends on the cooperation from the state governments,” he adds.

Experts point to a link between pesticides and farmer suicides. Umendra Dutt, Executive Director, Kheti Virasat Mission — a movement for natural farming and ecological restoration of Punjab — says farmers of intensive agriculture are more prone to suicide. “Pesticides cause nervous breakdowns. In Punjab, in the regions of Muktsar, Bhatinda and Mansa and Sangrur, high suicide rate is tied to high pesticide consumption. Why are there no facts to show how much farmers spend on medical care?” he asks. Experts believe it is time for a model of agriculture that doesn’t require taking a loan and tech-intensive and market-oriented agriculture stand in the way of that.

Post-harvest losses range from 4 percent to 16 percent resulting in annual loss of about Rs 92,651 crore. The government plans to augment the cold-chain infrastructure scheme by taking up around 500 cold chain projects with an additional allocation of Rs 4,000 crore to create capacity of 2.5 million MT in the next 5 years. Sharma feels that the country must evaluate what has happened to cold storage structures in the past. Most, he says, have been turned into cinema halls and those who claimed money for building them, never constructed them in the first place. “Encouraging food processing adds to crop losses. We do need cold storage but first we need to provide a sanitary and well-lit space for mandis where vegetables are bought. Big corporates will benefit from cold chains and that shouldn’t be the reason for developing them,” highlights Sharma.

In the next three years, the note proposes to form 10,000 clusters covering 5 lakh acre of area; every farmer in a cluster will be provided an assistance of Rs 20,000 per acre. “On the one hand, you are promoting organic farming. And on the other hand, you want to endorse genetically-modified mustard. Today, green house emission from agriculture is 41 percent and non-chemical agriculture is the way forward. But if we take a decision to bring in modified mustard, it'll open up the floodgates for 71 more crops,” says Sharma.

In 1970, the procurement price of wheat was 76 rupees per quintal. In 2015, the procurement price jumped 19 times to Rs 1,450. In the same period, the basic pay of a government employee has gone up 120 to 150 times, that of college professors has gone up 150 – 170 times, that of corporates has gone up 300 times and that of the corporate senior management has gone up 300 times. The peasant’s salary has gone up 19 times. Agriculture experts believe the price of wheat should be Rs 7,600 per quintal.

Other than that, agrarian experts stress on three factors that never find space in any policy: One is the social stigma attached to taking a loan. Why is a farmer’s photograph displayed in the local courts when he fails to repay a loan? Secondly, nearly 40 percent of the suicides are by khet mazdoors. Where are their rights?

Thirdly, in the 12th Five Year Plan, the total budget for agriculture was Rs 1.5 lakh crore for five years. This years’ MNGERA budget is more than the budget of agriculture, why is the sector that involves 60 percent being ignored in the first place?

As per the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), what is required is inter-state cooperation and intervention of the Central government to control farm fires in Punjab and Haryana. This includes the action directed by the Supreme Court as well as the National Green Tribunal related to subsidy for farmers to buy appropriate technology that will prevent burning of straw as well as the infrastructure for reuse of straw. This needs financial support from the Central as well as state governments. For Delhi, their suggested emergency plan to cut pollution levels involves reducing vehicle numbers, shutting down the Badarpur power plant, taking very stringent action on waste burning and construction activities, and banning fireworks in all social events during winter.

If the average Delhite is dying little by little out of breathlessness, the poverty and helplessness of farmers is forcing them to commit suicide; a more immediate and effective end. Either way, death is inevitable.

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2016 15:53 PM

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