Decomposers, subsidised machinery good, but MSP etc at the root
Crop stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana will continue this year almost as before, satellite images and media reports show. The national capital region (NCR) thus must brace for another season of air quality reaching very poor or even severe levels, compounded by the shift in air-flow dynamics. Indeed, stubble-burning is estimated to contribute anywhere between 20% and 70% of Delhi’s air pollution in October and November; the Union environment ministry last year said that the average contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s pollution has increased from 10% in 2019 to more than 15% in 2020. The government of the national capital territory (NCT) has adopted a 10-point action plan to control winter pollution that includes supply of a decomposer solution developed by the Pusa Institute to farmers in the NCT. The Centre, for its part, released Rs 496 crore to subsidise machinery that can be deployed to for in-situ management of crop stubble in three states (Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh) and the NCT—close to 31,000 custom hiring centres for close to 1.6 lakh such machinery have been set up or the purpose.
The Commission for Air Quality Management had earlier estimated that the area under paddy—whose stalk-remnants are burned to make way for wheat sowing that begins shortly after—in the three states and the NCR to fall by 7.72% this year over the last; total straw from non-basmati rice, the chief contributor to the stubble burning issue, is also likely to have come down by 13%. While these are important improvements, they are modest vis-a-vis the reduction required. The Centre might have tactically ceded ground on decriminalisation of stubble burning last year in negotiations with farmers’ union to engender trust in the farm-law parleys, but this has only emboldened farmers—some demanded legalisation of stubble burning, some others have even asked state governments to give a per acre grant for managing crop residue, on top of the subsidised machinery being made available. To be sure, there could be a shortage of machines given the need is felt over a small window by large farmer populations in Punjab and Haryana. But, that is something that needs to be resolved by making more machinery and other solutions—such as Delhi’s free distribution of decomposer—rather than a Mexican standoff between the government, the farmers and environmental advocacy. The crux of the problem, however, is poor agricultural policy—from power subsidies given by state governments to the Centre’s open-ended, assured procurement at MSP. Thanks to these policies, Punjab and Haryana farmers are hooked to paddy and a cultivation cycle (with the aim to benefit maximally from MSP-led procurement) that makes stubble burning an imperative. If the Centre were to move away from MSP—through per acre cost support instead of price support—and states were to encourage crop diversification, it would do the environment a world of good. From fixing the stubble burning problem to addressing the falling groundwater crisis in states like Punjab, a rethink in agriculture policy would be a better bet than well-meaning but temporary fixes like free decomposers and subsidised machinery for stubble extraction.