Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has rightly been criticised for gimmicks like odd-even to help fix the capital’s poisonous air when, as the NGT also pointed out, there is no evidence that it has worked in the past. More important, even if it does work, the fact that Kejriwal wanted to exclude women drivers as well as two-wheelers—two-wheelers, because of their much larger numbers, cause three times more pollution than four-wheelers according to the IIT-Kanpur study for Delhi—made it that much less useful. Similarly, the fact that the number of buses run by DTC has fallen under Kejriwal’s watch, shows he hasn’t done much to fix Delhi’s pollution problem. Where Kejriwal cannot be blamed, however, is when it comes to the pollution being caused by burning of crop stubble in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh—23 million tonnes of paddy straw has already been burned over the past two weeks and another 11 million is waiting to go the same way over the next week. Stopping this depends on the chief ministers of these states and, at least so far, their response has not been encouraging.
A long-term solution lies in changing the cropping pattern in Punjab and Haryana away from paddy—the very short 15-20 day period between the paddy harvesting and the wheat sowing is why farmers burn the stubble—as it will also reduce the stress on the already falling water table. While some experts like Bharat Krishak Samaj chairman Ajay Vir Jakhar recommend allowing ethanol extraction from maize to get Punjab farmers to switch to maize which has much less of a stubble problem, as The Indian Express has reported, the problem was flagged by a NITI Aayog task force some months ago and it suggested the burning of the waste in a brick-and-clay dome-like structure in the absence of oxygen to produce biochar or prali-char, a carbon-rich residue which has commercial value as soil nutrient.
But since farmers needed to be paid for building the brick-and-clay structures, and also for the labour needed to cut the waste and take it to the burning facility, the proposal for the financial package was discussed with officials of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh at a video-conference organised by NITI, in which senior officers of the central government also participated. While the task force had calculated that farmers in Punjab alone required nearly Rs 1,500 crore this season, the Centre said it did not have the funds when the states asked for help. Asking states to arrange for their own funds may be a sensible strategy at most times, but when the problem that needs to be resolved goes beyond the boundaries of the state and involves citizens breathing poison, the Centre would have done well to not treat this as yet another request for funds from profligate states.