With nearly 60% of the particulate matter that gathers over Delhi at this time of the year attributable to the burning of paddy waste in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana—according to a study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute—it is obvious that no lasting solution is possible without finding a way to get farmers to stop this practice. But, with increasing wage rates, farmers are reluctant to use workers to remove the crop residue and prefer to just burn it. So, when the central government finalises its plan to address the issue of dealing with Delhi’s rapidly deteriorating air quality—in response to a Supreme Court direction—it will do well to consider chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian’s pulses report which also deals with this.
Subramanian argues that switching to pulses such as pigeon pea (arhar) as a kharif crop instead of paddy in Punjab has large social and environmental benefits, including doing away with the need to burn farm-waste as paddy, due to its high silica content, doesn’t degrade easily. The Subramanian Committee report on Incentivising Pulses Production Through Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Related Policies compares growing tur or arhar in Punjab with growing paddy in the state and finds that the former yields a net social benefit of R13,240 per hectare over rice when fertiliser and ground water subsidies and nitrogen-fixation capacity are factored in along with the cost of greenhouse gas emission by the crops—add the pollution caused by burning paddy waste, and the social benefits increase even more. Getting farmers to switch from paddy to pulses, of course, isn’t going to be easy since, as the Subramanian panel points out, its price volatility is around 2.4 times that of paddy. To the extent there is increased procurement, and with assured quantities every year, the volatility will get reduced—naturally, the minimum support price has to factor in both the social benefits as well as the higher volatility. If the amount to be procured falls short of what is needed to convince farmers to make the switch, the government should consider direct cash subsidies to farmers since the cost-benefit is substantial.