Delhi chokes on air pollution: Why blame farmers for burning crops? Here’s what government must do

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November 07, 2017 1:46 PM

Air pollution in Delhi has reached extremely hazardous levels, with grave health consequences. Blame has been pinned on paddy stubble burning in neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab.

delhi pollution, delhi air pollution, delhi smog, stubble burning, crop burning, delhi air, air pollution, delhi air qualityDelhi witnesses unusual levels of smog during the months of October and November. (AP/PTI)

Air pollution in Delhi has reached extremely hazardous levels, with grave health consequences. Blame has been pinned on paddy stubble burning in neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab – in fact, it is one of the main causes for the dangerous air quality index levels in the national capital and surrounding areas. This usually happens ahead of the winter season. Stubble burning is essentially a common practice followed by farmers in order to get their fields ready for sowing wheat. After the paddy is harvested, there is very little time for farmers to sow wheat, which makes it an urgent task for farmers. While some alleviating measures have been taken by governments, yet these are never enough as every year Delhi witnesses unusual levels of smog during the months of October and November. This makes it important for the government to diagnose and address the fundamental issues which arm twist the farmers to burn paddy straw every year.

Paddy stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh is a fact, but farmers have no choice. They are compelled to burn paddy stubble in the short time they have. These farmers work on a Paddy-Wheat cycle. Since wheat is a rabi crop, farmers are compelled to harvest paddy and sell it as well as make sure the field is ready for the next round of sowing. This process takes around 15 days. For these farmers, burning the paddy straw is an easy way out. Central and state governments, instead of helping out these farmers, have either coerced them into submission or played a blame-game.

This act of farmers is not defiance. Instead, the burning process is a low-cost straw-disposal method that also reduces the turnaround time for them. However, the resultant smoke travels all the way to the national capital due to the winds. This smoke adds to the already existing suspended particulate matter (SPM) and other things that clogs lungs.

Is it a cost issue? Stubble burning is a process which was started due to combine harvesters, machines that harvest, thresh and clean the crop in one go. The practice takes around 1 hour and Rs 1,000 to 1,500 to cover an acre of paddy. However, if the farmers use a traditional sickle-harvesting and manual threshing-cum-cleaning, they need 10 men working for a whole day. This method costs around Rs 5000. So, combine harvesting becomes a natural choice. But the problem arises when this method leaves behind 15-inch stalks in the fields and they are of no use to the farmers. Therefore, the stalks are burned. If they do not burn, farmers will have to spend more money and time to remove them. This also means late sowing of wheat and eventually hampering the crop growth cycle.

The other method the farmers have is to incorporate the ‘stubble’ back into the soil. This process has many benefits, but at what cost? However, this process means extra spending on machinery. These machines cost lakhs of rupees, which most farmers cannot afford.

It is up to the government to provide assistance to these farmers by procuring machines. While there have been measures taken in some areas of Punjab and outskirts of Delhi, clearly the pollution levels show that there is a lack of timely planning. Despite NGT 2015 ban on crop burning, reports suggest that farmers still resort to this technique. It is important that the central and state governments should work in tandem to provide subsidies to the farmers. This paddy residue, if saved instead of burning, can be used for power generation. States like Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu are prime examples of biomass-based power generators. If governments in Haryana and Punjab take to this method, they can overcome the crop burning problems, power deficit issues, and also Delhi’s air pollution.

Meanwhile, the farming community is furious. Farmers in Punjab have been reportedly asking the government for Rs 6000 per acre of land as the compensation package for the losses they incur by not burning crops – governments have even resorted to coercive measures like penalising farmers who burn the paddy. Meanwhile, the state governments have been shifting the blame to the Centre by demanding incentive packages. Stubble burning is a socio-economic issue. The governments have been investing a lot in numerous policies. Is it really not possible that some of those resources are diverted to address the severe environmental consequences and save the public from various diseases caused by these smoke clouds?

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