Farm fires: Think local, go beyond new green body

By: |
October 28, 2020 6:15 AM

Involve local stakeholders, executive to curb farm fires, pollution

EPCA is empowered to issue directions to any person, office or authority, and can also file criminal complaints against those that violate its direction.

The Centre taking about a law to control stubble burning—the law will create a permanent body to direct measures to control not just stubble burning, but also other pollution—is akin to slapping a band-aid on when surgery and suturing is required. It is not as if the fight against pollution lacks an agency to enforce this. Indeed, the Supreme Court-appointed Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the National Capital Region (EPCA) has been in existence for over 20 years now, with representation from the government, industry and civil society.

EPCA is empowered to issue directions to any person, office or authority, and can also file criminal complaints against those that violate its direction. While it intervenes to control pollution in the national capital through its graded action plan (GRAP) and is to be credited for having significantly influencing various judgements of the Supreme Court on cutting pollution, including the one on Bharat-VI compliance, as environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta points out in articles in The Wire (based on publicly available data and information got through RTI), there is very little evidence of the body’s powers having been invoked—indeed, whether it is the body’s own inability or the various ways in which it is constrained in enforcing its powers, the fact is that between 2017 and 2019, as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau, no crimes were registered under the Air Pollution (Prevention and Control) Act in Delhi, one of the world’s worst polluted cities; for a contrast, the national capital saw 24 offences registered under the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act. Against such a backdrop, what are the chances a permanent body set up by the Centre—by ordinance in the interim—would be able to turn things around?

The Centre, and the judiciary, need to realise that plans, especially for controlling stubble burning, require the involvement of local stakeholders, including the grassroots executive, to be implemented to the desired effect. This should have been clear when, in its response to the EPCA, the Punjab government had thrown up its hands on the matter of compensation to the farmers for not burning farm residue, saying it needed the Centre to pitch in.

No matter how well the intentions, a Supreme Court-appointed authority or a central body by itself, even if it has some representation from the states, will hardly be able to make a dent. Indeed, the feeble enforcement of the apex court’s judgements on water-sharing by states show well the limitations of judiciary/central government directed measures if the concerns of the local executive and other stakeholders are not factored in. And the key to effective local stakeholders’ participation would be figuring out the economic compulsions behind implementation lagging—for instance, while there is a subsidy scheme for machinery to deal with crop residue in the field itself, Punjab and Haryana still have some ground to cover; this has a lot to do with the fact that farmers find it easier to pay the fines than hire/purchase the machinery.

Also, given how the problem of crop-burning is tied to cropping patterns in these states—which, in turn, is tied to the Centre’s procurement policy—to meaningfully act against crop burning, farmers have to be weaned away from paddy-wheat cultivation in the two states; to that end, the local executive is best placed to figure out how to induce the farmers into giving up these crops, not a central authority.

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