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Stubble burning rises in northern states as authorities turn blind eye during polls; but politics a poor excuse for environmental crisis

With the Rabi crop ploughed and stored away, farmers in the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are busy preparing their fields for the next crop. However, with the transition period coinciding with elections, the old issue of rampant stubble burning has once again taken centre stage as authorities busy with poll preparations are unable to arrest the trend, which not only harms the soil fertility but also is one of the causes behind pollution in neighbouring Delhi.

According to several media reports, the state of Punjab, which had achieved up to 50 percent reduction in the practice of stubble burning and was targeting a whopping 90 percent cut, has again registered a spike in such reports. Hindustan Times reported that during this week alone around 150 cases of stubble burning have been reported in the Malwa region of Punjab, as per figures given by the Punjab state remote-sensing department. According to The Indian Express, whether in Patiala, the home district of Punjab chief minister captain Amarinder Singh, Sangrur, the stronghold of AAP leader Bhagwant Mann, or Bathinda, the seat of Union Akali minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, large tracts of farmland are being set on fire. The situation is not very different in Haryana's Rohtak, Jhajjhar and Sonipat districts either. And despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on the practice and a Supreme Court order making compliance to the order binding on state governments, the authorities have not registered even a single case against the defaulters as the the state machinery is preoccupied with the Lok Sabha polls.

It is a relief that wheat straw releases much less smoke in air than the winter crop of paddy, but the overall problem that leads to depleted soil fertility and considerable air pollution within Punjab's cities as well stands unaddressed.

 Stubble burning rises in northern states as authorities turn blind eye during polls; but politics a poor excuse for environmental crisis

Crop burning in Punjab. File image. Reuters

Politics behind paddy?

While this appears to be the more plausible reason, political sensibilities cannot be entirely unlinked from the issue.

Come October, as winter begins to envelop Delhi, the pattern of passing the buck continues. While the Delhi government blames the neighbouring state farmers for the menace of pollution, the respective state governments defend them citing the complexities the agrarians face, and thus the fire underneath the political potboiler is kept alive. Then no party, especially in Punjab where even leading national parties are known by the face of their regional leaders alone, will be willing to alienate voters by fining them just ahead of polling day (19 May). And a state officer confirms this to The Indian Express: "We are paying the price of democracy as no one wants to take action on farmers in the midst of the election season."

Amarinder Singh's announcement at an election rally about preponing the date of sowing paddy from 20 June to 13 June was another populist measure just ahead of polls that might translate into an environmental disaster.

A report from 2017, the year Delhi saw its worst air pollution levels in a decade and when the cry for banning stubble burning was at its loudest, no political party showed the will to follow through on the NGT's order and implement the ban on burning of crop residue. While Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had appealed to states of Punjab and Haryana to stop the practice, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, then an AAP leader, had himself burnt paddy straw in Ludhiana to support the farmers.

Likewise, Amarinder had also paid mere lip service to a choking Delhi and expressed his inability to curb the practice.

"Punjab is helpless in the matter as it cannot force or penalise beleaguered farmers, who were trying hard to cope with massive debt burdens and did not have the money to meet the cost of stubble management," he said. The reason for this doublespeak is simple: Farmers constitute an influential and volatile vote bank in both Punjab and Haryana, and no party wants to offend them. But beyond the politics of vote bank, there's very little that these parties have done to arrest the trend.

Why do farmers burn stubble despite fines, government assistance? 

The problem is more pronounced in the Kharif season as it takes a period of 45 days for paddy straw to decompose completely and then be used as fertiliser, but farmers usually have just 25 days before they have to start sowing the next crop. If the agricultural scientists can succeed in reducing this period of 45 days to 25 days, the problems related to stubble burning can come down substantially, the The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) chairman told PTI.

Till 2007, farmers could plant paddy whenever they wanted. But in 2009, the state government introduced the 'Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act' which allowed farmers to sow paddy from nurseries into the fields only on dates announced by the government. Rice in Punjab is sown in May-June and harvested in October-November, and the late sowing was to put less pressure on groundwater as farmers could use more surface water with the arrival of rains from 1 June. Then the crop which matures just around winters, leaves a very small window for farmers to prepare the field for the next season's crop.

However, setting fields on fire in the April-May season is a relatively new phenomenon because most part of the wheat crop residue is useful fodder. There is no shortage of time because after harvesting wheat, farmers have a two-month gap before they cultivate the monsoon crops. But the farmers are still burning their fields.

Down To Earth report reveals this is owing to the rising cost of labour and the lack of it in villages. Ankit Choyal Jat, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh’s Harda district, says, "If I can clear my farm using a one-rupee matchbox, why will I spend thousands?” He reveals that as soon as the agricultural season ends the agricultural labours in the villages migrate to cities in search of work. The few people who are left behind are hired by big farmers because of which the cost of labour further rises for small farmers.

The same report quotes another farmer who reveals that those farmers who could afford mechanisation have switched over to the combined harvester machines to tide over the labour scarcity. The machine finishes the task of reaping, threshing and winnowing in a few hours and is also economical. But it only reaps the grains, leaving stalks or stubble of around 40 centimetre behind.

Those who want fodder have to get the stubble removed manually or use specialised machines to do the job. But that is costly and the cost of fodder is not even a fraction of the labour costs involved in obtaining it. So the value of fodder is discounted because it is more economic for the farmers to just burn and clear the fields.

Last year, the Punjab government supported farmers to shift to greener methods to get rid of the crop residue than burning it. It promoted the use of farm machinery, offering financials assistance, yet, a significant chunk of farmers still showed reluctance to use the Happy Seeder fearing lower yields. And this fear, coupled with the high cost of the machines, seems to override the fear of penal action for burning stubble.

The machine is expensive at Rs 150,000, despite the 50 percent subsidy which brings down the cost to over Rs 75,000. Farmers can hire the machine for Rs 1,500 per acre from Custom Hiring Centres (CHC) but find it hard to get them during wheat sowing period because there are not enough machines available. It is still easier for more affluent farmers who own large land holdings, but small and marginal farmers can neither afford to buy a Happy Seeder nor can they find one on rent.

Mehtab Kadyan of Bhartiya Kisan Union told Firstpost, "Farmers believe a fine of Rs 2,500 on paddy burning is anyway lower than the cost of hiring machines so, why should they spend Rs 6,000 on the machines? Farmers don’t always pay the fine also because at times when an official comes to collect it, they start protesting. The official is then forced to leave without collecting any fine," he said.

Educating farmers only possible solution

An agriculture researcher from Haryana told Tech2 that the farmers in the region believed that more tillage of land leads to more production so they burn stubble and use Rotavator, which chops the straw into small pieces using rotating blades and spreads it inside the soil.

"The concept might have been true around 30 years ago. However, it is no more effective with the introduction of hybrid seed varieties. There is need to explain it to farmers with scientific demonstration," said the Karnal-based researcher, who did not wish to be named.

Moreover, even the Supreme Court bench which made the NGT order binding on the state governments, noted that it was impossible to introduce greener habits by imposing bans and penalties when the farmers already suffered with low farm incomes.

"We ourselves are saying that this (directions and advisory) is not going to work... The farmers do not have any cheaper method to deal with the issue of stubble. You consider granting some kind of subsidy to them so that crop burning can stop," a bench comprising Justices AK Sikri, SA Nazeer and MR Shahbench noted in February.  The bench said the farmers will not do it on their own and they should be given some kind of incentive to ensure that stubble burning stops.

It needs greater investment from the government, incentivising diversification of crops and introducing cheaper methods to turn around the stubble before a new crop can be sown. However, these changes also need a strong political will in a land where farmers are tightly bound in a vicious cycle between increasing yields and maximising profit with little market security.  But for now, the agricultural fields of Punjab and Haryana are ash blackened due to rampant stubble burning.  And the political parties are looking for a rich harvest on 23 May.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2019 17:41:31 IST