Farm Fire Menace
Punjab and Haryana governments must control crop burning as it’s against court ruling
In a week or so paddy harvesting will end in Punjab and Haryana and it will be time to get the fields ready for wheat planting ahead of the winter season. This is a very worrying time for the larger neighbourhood including Delhi, because if farmers ready their fields by burning stubble, the dark smoke clouds that rise as a result travel far and wide, carrying in their wake severe air pollution. Once again the Environment Pollution Control Authority would direct both state governments to ensure that there is no paddy stubble burning. So, before the smoke takes control over the environment of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, Chief Ministers Amarinder Singh, Arvind Kejriwal and Manohar Lal Khattar must ensure that this time their state machinery fulfils the EPCA directive rather indulging in blame game politics.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been passing orders to improve the air quality in Delhi and NCR but straw burning in Punjab and Haryana continues unabated. The tribunal even asked the union environment ministry to submit a report on the implementation of the existing rules against straw burning by May 25. “We make it clear that if minutes of the meeting and the final document are not placed on record before the tribunal, we will be compelled to impose very heavy costs on MoEF,” the bench said.
On the upside there is evidence that both Haryana and Punjab governments are now doing more stringent monitoring but on the downside this seems to be just driving many farmers to burn the stubble covertly – or claim that their field fires are accidental. This reflects poorly on measures to provide farmers convenient and profitable alternatives to burning stubble. For example, subsidies for agri equipment, such as happy seeder or rotavor that can sow seeds without the need to remove the remains of stubble, haven’t reached most farmers – not to mention that these subsidies are accompanied by cumbersome formalities.
The track record is even worse when it comes to commercializing the stubble for animal feed, packaging and paper industries, power generation, etc. Both Punjab and Haryana governments have been unconscionably laggard on this front. This must change. Remember that burning stubble doesn’t just cause respiratory diseases and worsen greenhouse gas emissions; it causes severe heat stress on the farmland itself, with one rough estimate being that it destroys soil nutrients worth up to `2,000 crore every year.
But speaking of laggardness, when stubble is burnt and a soupy smog rises,
when city chemists run short of protective masks and a public health crisis grows, India’s National Air Quality Index cannot even provide a reliable measurement as it doesn’t have enough monitoring stations and even the existing ones don’t monitor for all important pollutants. It has one air quality monitor for the entire metropolis of Mumbai as compared to London’s 100. From Centre to states, solutions to curb crop burning and clean the air are well known. What’s needed is the political resolve to deliver these solutions.
NO RESPECT FOR LAW
However, at the same time one can ask when the court has ordered both Punjab and Haryana governments to control crop burning in their respective states, none of the state governments have taken any such stringent action against any farmer found indulge in such heinous crime against nature that causes air pollution not just in their states but in surrounding states including national capital. Despite a ban and dire warning from the Delhi High Court, the practice has been on and neither of the state governments has taken any action to stop it. On October 6, 2017, the Delhi high court had warned the chief secretaries of four states (Punjab, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan) that they would be held responsible if crop burning persisted in their states this year. But, fire do broke out in Delhi and it lasted for more than a fortnight.
The Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) had held a meeting on October 7, 2016 with chief secretaries and senior officials of Punjab and Haryana governments on crop stubble burning. Bhure Lal, head of EPCA, made a number of directions to ensure “zero crop stubble burning” this year.
“In order to ensure effective enforcement of the law, the states shall start imposing penalty and prosecution for all incidents of stubble burning through district level special teams,” a note by EPCA read. EPCA also directed state governments to launch awareness campaigns before the paddy harvesting period, and asked state remote sensing agencies to stay vigilant.
Therefore, in short, burning of paddy stubbles to clear the fields for winter sowing is a rampant practice in Punjab and Haryana, leading to severe air pollution across the region. It’s one of the contributors to the sharp drop in air quality usually seen over Delhi-NCR in OctoberNovember.
It’s not that farmer’s don’t want to shun this practice of crop burning ahead of winter sowing. But, they don’t know any alternative which they can afford and the alternative they know is a costly affair.
“I would have to buy equipment worth Rs 5 lakh to get rid of the paddy stubble. That’s a lot of investment. The government has issued warning but I fear a lot of farmers will continue to burn their paddy residues,” said Ruby Singh Sandhu, a farmer who owns around 60 acres of land in Mallekan village in northern Haryana. So, if the government wants to avoid parli burning their state, farmers want some subsidy in the investment which would amount to near `5 lakh. ‘Since, they are investing in post health hazards caused by air pollution due to parli burning; they can do it earlier and help us help them to bail out from this crisis.”