To curb stubble burning, pay attention to EPCA on making straw management machines affordable

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October 2, 2020 7:00 AM

Last year, Haryana farmers burnt nearly a fifth of the paddy stubble generated by them, while Punjab farmers burnt nearly half of what they generated.

Last year, the Punjab government paid Rs 28.51 crore to 31,231 farmers, while Haryana’s paid Rs 1.63 crore to 4,000.Last year, the Punjab government paid Rs 28.51 crore to 31,231 farmers, while Haryana’s paid Rs 1.63 crore to 4,000.

The Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, or EPCA, is right in saying that an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal of grain—paid on top of the MSP during procurement by the Centre—is “not viable”. Though such an incentive will likely encourage more farmers to refrain from burning crop stubble, in the long run, the government can’t keep bearing this burden. The Supreme Court, in November 2019, had directed the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to pay farmers a financial incentive to curb the practice, which accounts for nearly 4-30% of daily pollutant concentration in Delhi’s air in the early winter months. Last year, the Punjab government paid Rs 28.51 crore to 31,231 farmers, while Haryana’s paid Rs 1.63 crore to 4,000. This year, the Haryana government expects to pay as much as Rs 301 crore. While the Punjab government hasn’t given an estimate of the total incentive, it has sought the Centre’s support for funding this, saying it can’t do this on its own. The solution that the body advocates—giving farmers “easy and affordable access to the machines which allow them to do smart straw management”—seems a far more pragmatic one.

Last year, Haryana farmers burnt nearly a fifth of the paddy stubble generated by them, while Punjab farmers burnt nearly half of what they generated. Both in-situ (in the field) and ex-situ (elsewhere) solutions need to be considered, apart from tackling the fundamental factors prompting the practice. To that end, the Supreme Court had directed action based on the Union agriculture and farmers welfare ministry’s submissions to it. Under a 100% centrally-funded scheme, machines that help farmers in in-situ management—by tilling the stubble back into the soil—were to be provided to individual farmers at 50% subsidy and to custom hiring centres (CHCs) at 80% subsidy. The CHCs were to be under the oversight of village panchayats, primary agricultural cooperative societies and farmer producer organisations. Ex-situ solutions could include the purchase of the residue from farmers for the generation of ethanol, biogas, etc. While Haryana has set up 2,879 CHCs so far and has provided nearly 16,000 straw-management machines, it has to set up 1,500 more and has to cover nearly as many panchayats it has reached so far. Similarly, Punjab, which has provided 50,815 machines so far, will need to set up 5,000 more CHCs—against 7,378 set up already—and reach 41% of its panchayats by October 2020. Unless the Centre and the state governments accelerate efforts to reach farmers, this year too will be lost. Another key factor will be ensuring affordability of service for those hiring the machines; Haryana has reserved 70% of the machines at panchayat-run CHCs for small and marginal farmers, while Punjab has prioritised service to them. Both states, as the EPCA has pointed out, will need to formalise what farmers are to be charged; while Haryana has said that panchayats are not charging any rental, Punjab has stated that small and marginal farmers are being charged only operational costs. If, instead of incentives, the state governments were to find a way to provide the service for free, there would likely be greater uptake. The long-term solution has to be crop diversification, away from paddy, but till the time the MSP-public procurement policies remain in place, it would be difficult to wean Punjab-Haryana farmers away from paddy meaningfully.

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