As we await the in­ferno

North­ern In­dia, in­clud­ing Delhi, is fac­ing the prospect of be­com­ing one of the most pol­luted places on earth.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

North­ern In­dia—in­clud­ing Delhi, the na­tional cap­i­tal of an as­pir­ing global power, a wannabe Vish­waguru (what­ever it means), one of the largest economies of the world—is once again fac­ing a dread­ful prospect: of be­com­ing one of the most pol­luted places on earth. And no, there is no “for­eign hand” be­hind it, no con­spir­acy to tor­ment In­di­ans, no en­emy ac­tion; there is sheer in­com­pe­tence and ap­a­thy of Hi­malayan pro­por­tions on the part of the po­lit­i­cal class, the class that has shed even the pre­tences of moral­ity. Also, there is the ques­tion­able con­duct of farm­ers.

“In the next few days, In­dia’s north­ern re­gion, es­pe­cially Delhi, is again likely to be­come among the most pol­luted places on earth be­cause a vast num­ber of farm­ers in Pun­jab and Haryana have de­cided to con­tinue their an­nual rit­ual of set­ting fire to paddy straw,” the Times Of In­dia re­ported on 5 Oc­to­ber. “This has brought back the spec­tre of smog chok­ing the re­gion de­spite the Cen­tre dol­ing out more than Rs 1,000 crore to the two states to fight stub­ble- burn­ing, and Pun­jab and Haryana mo­bi­liz­ing al­most their en­tire bu­reau­cracy to fight the men­ace.”

As feared, crop burn­ing be­gan a few days later, even as the cant­ing politi­cians mouthed gib­ber­ish and plat­i­tudes, ex­perts pon­tif­i­cated, and the me­dia re­ported the ris­ing cases of stub­ble burn­ing. The rea­sons are sim­ple: profit mar­gins in the farm sec­tor are very low, and the al­ter­na­tives to crop burn­ing are ex­pen­sive which erode the mar­gins. Now, farm­ers are gen­er­ally re­garded as holy cows in In­dia’s po­lit­i­cal de­bate, pub­lic dis­course, and folk­lore. So, the au­thor­i­ties are loath to pe­nalise them. Even when the penal­ties are im­posed, these are light.

Fur­ther, in the north­ern states, paddy straw is burnt in the fields by farm­ers af­ter har­vest­ing dur­ing Oc­to­berNovem­ber be­cause the time lag be­tween har­vest­ing of the paddy and sow­ing of wheat is just three weeks. Burn­ing is found ex­pe­di­ent.

At the heart of the prob­lem is fact that agri­cul­ture is do­ing very badly. De­spite about half the coun­try’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion en­gaged in it, its con­tri­bu­tion to the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct or GDP is less than 15%. What the sec­tor needs is struc­tural change by way of open­ing up the sec­tor, phas­ing out govern­ment con­trols, and al­low- ing farm­ers to do what­ever they want to do for higher rev­enues. But the pow­ers that be are un­will­ing to do that. This is worse than pol­icy paral­y­sis; this is think­ing paral­y­sis.

So, politi­cians of all hues and par­ties con­tinue with the poli­cies and prac­tices that have plagued the farm sec­tor in the first place. They keep mak­ing the same pop­ulist prom­ises that have been found ru­inous for agri­cul­ture, in­deed the en­tire econ­omy. Ra­jasthan Chief Min­is­ter Va­sund­hara Raje’s sop on agri­cul­tural elec­tric­ity con­nec­tion is a re­cent in­stant of such pop­ulism. The prom­ise came hours be­fore the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion’s an­nounce­ment about the up­com­ing Assem­bly elec­tions in Ra­jasthan and four other states.

But all over the coun­try, farm­ers al­ready free or cheap power, sub­sidy on fer­til­iz­ers, min­i­mum sup­port prices or MSPs, cheaper credit (and fre­quent loan waivers), ex­emp­tion from pay­ing in­come tax, and so on. And then there is bound­less sanc­ti­mo­nious­ness; ev­ery politi­cian’s heart bleeds for farm­ers. It may ap­pear that In­dian farm­ers are liv­ing in the best of all worlds, but they are ac­tu­ally liv­ing in the worst of all pos­si­ble worlds: shrink­ing mar­gins in a highly con­trolled sec­tor that politi- cians have lit­tle in­ten­tion of lib­er­al­is­ing.

Politi­cians are un­think­ing; un­for­tu­nately, the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of farm­ers are no bet­ter. For in­stance, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), which or­gan­ised a stir re­cently that choked the na­tional cap­i­tal re­gion, sel­dom talks about open­ing up the sec­tor. It gen­er­ally seeks more sops.

Af­ter a meet­ing with Union Min­is­ter of State for Agri­cul­ture, Ga­jen­dra Singh Shekhawat, BKU gen­eral sec­re­tary, Yud­hvir Singh said that “the govern­ment is silent on our de­mand for loan waiver, say­ing that the states had to take a de­ci­sion at their level. Also, it said that fix­a­tion of MSP based on ‘C2’ in­put fac­tor as per the Swami­nathan Com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions will be done in fu­ture.”

No­tice the in­sis­tence on es­o­teric mech­a­nisms, on mo­rally and eco­nom­i­cally rep­re­hen­si­ble prac­tices like loan waivers. If farm­ers are ex­empted to re­pay their loans, what moral author­ity the govern­ment and banks would to ask sweep­ers, plumbers, elec­tri­cians, taxi driv­ers, and the now famed pako­dawal­lahs to re­pay their debts? They too are work­ing peo­ple, barely ek­ing out an ex­is­tence.

In a nut­shell, crop burn­ing is the most per­cep­ti­ble symp­tom of deep- rooted farm cri­sis. It can­not be dealt with sub­si­dies worth a few thou­sand crores, com­mit­tees to look into the mat­ter, and other ad hoc mea­sures. The need of the hour is com­pre­hen­sive re­forms in the sec­tor, so that the farmer gets free­dom to carry out his ac­tiv­i­ties to earn higher rev­enues. Those who mat­ter, how­ever, are will­ing to grant him only one free­dom: to burn stub­ble.

The need of the hour is com­pre­hen­sive re­forms in the sec­tor, so that the farmer gets free­dom to carry out his ac­tiv­i­ties to earn higher rev­enues.

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