The primary thrust of the 1981 Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act is on industrial and automobile-related pollution. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be used for burning of biomass and crop residue. Indeed, in December 2015, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change used Section 18(1)(b) of this legislation to issue directions for Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region), covering burning of agricultural waste, crop residues and biomass. Plus, there is the Environment Protection Act of 1986. Also, in December 2015, there was an unstarred question in Lok Sabha. The relevant part is the following. “Whether the recent satellite photographs have shown that the recent haze over North India was caused by the burning of farm residues in several State/UTs;… and the steps taken/being taken by the Government to encourage better and scientific disposal of the farm residues?”
In response, the minister of state for agriculture and farmers welfare stated, “The (US’s) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has released satellite image of some Northern and North-western states during October and November 2015, which reveals burning of crop residues in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. NASA imagery further reveals that, due to agricultural fires in some northern and northwestern states, smog and hazy weather conditions are formed in northern India, especially over Delhi and National Capital Region. ..Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare has formulated the “National Policy for Management of Crop Residues (NPMCR), 2014” and circulated to all States/UTs, to ensure prevention of burning of crop residues, by incentivizing purchase of modern machineries to minimize left-over crop residue in the field, in situ conservation and mixing of residue in soil to increase soil fertility, multiple uses of crop residue, formulation of fodder pellets and briquettes.” In a bit of a coincidence, the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT’s) direction is also from December 2015. “The National Policy for Management of Crop Residue, 2014 prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India shall in conjunction with the Action Plan prepared by the States of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab shall be implemented in all these States now, without any default and delay…We hereby direct and prohibit agricultural residue burning in any part of the NCT of Delhi, State of Rajasthan, State of Punjab, State of Uttar Pradesh and State of Haryana.”
Almost two years down the line, how does it look? NASA images, especially if one doesn’t focus only on North India, are less than comforting. Burning of crop residues may have declined a bit in Punjab and Haryana, but now extends to Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and even bits of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It is all very well to say defaulters should be punished, say under Section 15 of the Environment Protection Act. But this isn’t easy to enforce, though there have been instances of FIRs, prosecutions and fines against farmers in Punjab, Haryana and UP, and that does have a deterrent effect.
Ideal legislation, rules and directives are self-enforcing, depending on incentives rather than the iron hand. Therefore, it is important to understand the economics of what is happening. Although bits and pieces have been floating around, there is a probing story in the May 16-31 issue of Down to Earth. Subject to some regional variations, here is what one gathers.
Agriculture is getting transformed, with irrigation and multiple cropping, plus increased cultivation of wheat. This squeezes time available for manually taking out stubble, perhaps more serious in November-December and relatively less serious in April-May. In general, there is a window of 10-15 days between crops, not two months.
Mechanisation, not manual extraction, becomes the answer. Labour has become expensive and is often not available. Combine harvesters have become easier to buy, and even rent. Therefore, use combine harvesters for reaping, threshing and winnowing. But combine harvesters leave the stubble. That stubble has value as fodder, more for wheat, less for rice. Even for rice, it is possible to think of power from biomass and other uses. However, right now, this isn’t viable because of assorted reasons, including expenses of decentralised collection and aggregation.
One has to deal with the fodder in the field in various ways—use rotavators to mulch crop residue into the soil, introduce stubble distributors or straw management systems in combine harvesters or use Happy Seeders (something NGT mentioned) to plant through the residue. Despite such possibilities, today, the economics is loaded in favour of burning.
NGT contemplated the following. “Every State will provide Machines, Mechanism and Equipment or its cost to the farmers to ensure that agricultural residue in the field in these states are removed, collected and stored at appropriate identified sites in each district. Such equipment like happy seeders would be provided to small farmers having land area less than 2 Acres free of Cost. For the farmers possessing area of more than 2 Acres but Less than 5 Acres, the cost for such machines is to be `5,000. For land owners having land area more than 5 Acres the cost for such machines is to be `15,000.” Stated more explicitly, this is about subsidisation. As NGT argues, this is best done by subsidising farmers, not manufacturers of machines.
Burning crop residue has negative externalities, not factored into private cost-benefit calculations. Monetary penalties and subsidies align private cost-benefit numbers a bit more closely with social ones.