Delhi choking on burned paddy stubble is a national problem

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Published: November 26, 2019 12:25:22 AM

Delhi is choking because the Green Revolution was pushed to the point where it became distortionary and dangerous.

pollution, delhi, pollution, delhi air pollution, green revolutionDelhi is choking because the Green Revolution was pushed to the point where it became distortionary and dangerous. (File photo)

The Green Revolution of the 1960s saved the people of India from chronic food shortages, and the government from the embarrassment of having to receive foreign charity. The label refers, of course, to the introduction of high yielding varieties of grains, especially wheat and rice, combined with irrigation, and use of chemical fertilisers to increase yields and total grain output. In India, the Green Revolution is closely bound up with the then-state of Punjab (now Punjab and Haryana), where the innovations first took hold, and with the working of the PDS, which procures wheat and rice at minimum prices and makes them available to consumers at subsidised prices.
More recently, the label “Green” has come to mean something quite different, namely, protection of the environment, including air, water, plants, and animals—that is, the ecosystem. It is the height of irony, therefore, that one of the consequences of the original Green Revolution is to work against “greenness” in this newer, world-sustaining sense. Matters have come to a head with the widespread, life-threatening pollution caused by burning of paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana. The Supreme Court has acted decisively, if somewhat emotionally, by demanding that this burning come to a complete stop. The desired outcome is understandable because of the scale and severity of the problem. But, the court’s punitive approach towards farmers, inevitable given the scope of what it can do, will not solve the longer run and deeper underlying problem. The SC has chastised the two state governments, with some justification, but the true causes lie in the policies of the Union government.

Over five decades ago, India’s government needed to solve the problem of food shortages, and vigorously promoted the Green Revolution. Punjab, for various reasons, took the lead. Enhanced prosperity followed for the state along with a sense of pride in feeding the nation, in being India’s breadbasket. But, already by the early 1970s, problems were beginning to emerge. The rivers of the plains of Punjab and Haryana that remained in India were not able to provide enough water to meet the demands of the new growing technologies. This problem grew worse when rice began to be grown in Punjab, following the lead of wheat: the PDS and the logic of crop rotation drove this shift to rice from other crops, creating a wheat-rice cycle that further locked in farmers.

Without enough water from rivers and canals, tubewells powered by electric pumps became a major source of water for irrigation. The political economy of the two states, especially Punjab, dictated free water and power to keep the Green Revolution going. Groundwater levels began to fall precipitously. Attempts at crop diversification failed in the face of the dominance of the PDS and guaranteed minimum prices for wheat and rice: change was too risky for farmers. The response was to force delay in planting paddy to reduce demands on groundwater. This worked, to some extent, but squeezed the timing of the wheat-rice cycle so much that burning the paddy stubble became the only viable solution for farmers already struggling with diminishing returns and lack of power vis-a-vis larger intermediaries providing inputs and credit.

Delhi is choking because the Green Revolution was pushed to the point where it became distortionary and dangerous. Even if stubble burning is stopped by paying or punishing farmers enough, Punjab will turn into a desert in just a few years. The Green Revolution contributed to a particularly disastrous mix of politics, economics, and religion in Punjab; the state has lacked good governance and fiscal resources for a long time. The Supreme Court’s approach to the problem, while legally impeccable, is likely to exacerbate conflict: already one is reading about farmers burning paddy stubble as a protest against the larger forces that are destroying the last vestiges of the great hopes that were once associated with the introduction of high yielding varieties.

The bottom line is that this is a national problem, not a local or regional one. And, it will be solved not by piecemeal and punitive measures, but by imagining and implementing what I call a New Green Revolution. In this case, the colour will be more appropriate, since apparently the original name came from a US official offering an alternative to the “Red Revolution” in the Cold War era. A New Green Revolution will involve crop diversification, economic diversification (including animal husbandry, food processing and more), a reinvented agricultural extension system, implementation of numerous technologies for saving water, reducing use of chemical fertilisers, and a major overhaul of the PDS system, indeed, of India’s policy thinking about food security.

A New Green Revolution will require a deep version of cooperative federalism, not one where the Centre and states just bargain over an existing pie such as tax revenues, but cooperation in redesigning economic institutions (both public and private), regulatory schemes, and market interventions. Cooperation will have to be not just between the Centre and states, but among the states themselves, particularly Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh.

Most of all, a New Green Revolution will have to involve a shared vision with the people of the region, and of the country, about what future prosperity can look like. Farmers in the 1960s certainly followed economic incentives, but they also felt they were part of a national vision of improving the lot of the entire population. India’s politicians have failed to create a concrete new vision; maybe choking on burned paddy stubble can change that.

Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz. Views are personal

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