Why blame Arvind Kejriwal for Delhi’s smog, blame Narendra Modi

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Published: November 12, 2019 5:53:37 PM

If MSPs weren’t so high and FCI wasn’t buying all the crop, Punjab’s farmers would grow less paddy and burn less stubble.

The air quality in Delhi and its suburbs dipped on Tuesday due to raging farm fires in neighbouring states and a fall in temperature and the wind speed. (AP Photo)

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has come in for a lot of flak on various occasions for, among others, his odd-even scheme to tackle Delhi’s hazardous smog since it really achieves very little; by exempting two-wheelers from this though they far outnumber cars and also women-drivers (if they have their husbands or male co-workers in the car, the exemption goes away!), even the little impact odd-even can have has been reduced. And while remaining focused on odd-even, the chief minister hasn’t been able to augment the city’s bus service which, estimates are, is running at least a third below capacity; nor has much progress been made in implementing mechanical cleaning of streets given how much road dust contributes to the deepening smog. Nor is it just Kejriwal that is under attack. Given how much the stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab contributes to the smog, the Supreme Court has asked the chief secretaries of these two states to ensure that stubble burning stops immediately; and if not, it will hold them responsible for this. The court has also suggested a sum of Rs 100 per quintal of stubble be given to farmers as incentive for not burning it.

But, as Icrier professor, and FE columnist, Ashok Gulati argues, the real villain is being missed. At the heart of the crisis, Gulati argues, is the excess paddy that is grown in both states even though neither are traditional paddy-growers. They grow paddy because they are hardly charged for either water or electricity – to pump up the water from underground – and so have no qualms about using up 5,000 liters of water per kilogram of rice. This has destroyed their water table – it has been falling by around 33cm every year due to overuse of water – and, in order to save water during peak summer, the sowing season has been delayed; naturally, then, the harvesting season also gets delayed, leaving a very small window between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat. Given how expensive farm labour has become and the short window, it is hardly surprising that stubble burning is being done at the scale it is. It is possible to try and fix this by providing Happy Seeder machines for free to farmers during this short window – that’s what the states of Haryana and Punjab are being accused of not being able to provide in enough numbers – so that the wheat is sown into the soil and the straw is deposited over this as mulch.

So, as Gulati argues, why try to solve the stubble problem when the real problem is that, thanks to a lop-sided MSP policy combined with FCI procurement of paddy in states like Punjab and Haryana, excess cultivation of paddy. In which case, the Supreme Court really needs to take the central government to task instead of the states since the MSP-cum-procurement policy is really that of the centre and not the states. Gulati suggests a way out even if the central government is unwilling to change its policies. Since the combined subsidy given to farmers by way of cheap electricity – water is totally free – and subsidized fertilizer is Rs 15,000 per hectare, why not just give this to those farmers producing corn as an incentive? Apart from the fact that the centre/state subsidy burden won’t increase as a result of this, switching from paddy to corn will also help conserve water in the two states. If the Supreme Court realized this, it wouldn’t waste its time admonishing the chief secretaries of Haryana and Punjab.

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