Stubble burning is more political than an environmental issue.

It is that time of the year again when Delhi turns into a gas chamber and the smoke from Punjab reaches Delhi faster than the cries of the farmers. This time of the year brings with it the mudslinging game for Chief minister of Delhi and that of Punjab State.

Why does this problem exist?

In Punjab and Haryana, the paddy crop is usually harvested between the first and last week of October. The wheat crop is then sown from first week of November. Agriculture experts indicate and research shows that any delay in sowing wheat crop leads to poor produce. This gives the farmers a very short window of 15days.

These farmers regularly complain about the menace of rice straw – a product of mechanised agriculture – exacerbated by shortage of labour and lack of time. When paddy is harvested by a combined harvester and thresher, the machine leaves behind a significant length of stubble on the field. This prevents other machines from sowing wheat seeds. With only 10-15 days between the rice-harvesting season and the wheat-sowing time, farmers often burn the stubble to quickly eliminate the paddy stubble. An estimated 11million tonnes of stubble is burnt. If we listen to farmers they blame the conspiracy by the Monsanto company and the Laws enacted by Punjab for preservation of ground water which results in burning of paddy crop residue (stubble) by the farmers in the end of October or November.

Why do farmers burn stubble if it pollutes environment?

The mudslinging this year has already started with Delhi chief minister targeting Punjab and asking Captain Amrinder Singh to check stubble burning. Apart from Lokur committee set up by SC to monitor the incidents of stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and UP, Punjab State has itself jumped into action with information campaign and spree of fines on farmers burning the stubble.

While the issue may appear trivial, Punjab govt and central government are to be blamed for this problem. Last year, the Supreme court asked the Punjab and Haryana governments to provide Rs 100 per quintal to small farmers to manage the stubble; given that the average productivity is 25.6 quintal per acre in Punjab, they may receive about Rs 2,560 per acre. But it seems many farmers don’t receive the amount – even though the government has assigned 8,000 nodal officers to oversee the compensation exercise, to prevent stubble-burning, and to increase awareness of alternate technologies. Farmers do not receive the amount leading to stubble burning. Punjab govt has complained about lack of funds citing Covid-19 and centre is unwilling to extend any help.

The fines imposed on farmers do not work at all. Punjab govt fined Errant farmers RS 6.1 crore in 2019. However, they have deposited only Rs 1 lakh thus far. Collecting fines from farmers is difficult, but more importantly doing so creates a hostile environment for local agricultural development functionaries. This hostile environment becomes all the more hostile due to ongoing Farm protests against the Farm bills. There have been repeated instances of agriculture and nodal officers being locked and chased away by farmers.

Punjab government has also been facing wrath of the combine owners. Around 400 combine owners are protesting the installation of a seeder equipment that uproots stubble. This equipment comes at a price of 1.5lac which is subsidised by government of Punjab. However the truth is that none of the combine owners has received any subsidy in the past leading to anger and mistrust. Another important point highlighted by both farmers and combine owners is that the machine leaves significant length leading to further costs of labour. An estimated 6000/- per acre is required by farmers using manual labour to uproot stubble government claims can be solved using combines with seeders. The cost using combines turns out to be around 2500/- per acre but the fact that is ignored by govt is that farmers need to use labour even after using the seeders leading to higher expenses. The combine owners are fined 50,000/- for not complying with the order to install the machine.

Is stubble burning really the cause of Delhi pollution?

Stubble burning no doubt is an environmental concern but going after farmers every year without offering any help is an act of institutional and constitutional dishonesty. This dishonesty prevails among environmentalists, policy makers, and the mudslingers of all political parties alike.

Prakash Javedkar said that stubble burning contributes only 4% to the pollutants in Delhi . The statement might have freed central government from any responsibility that comes along from Captain’s government for funds to tackle stubble burning but it definitely has not solved the issue. Deflecting the issue has worked in the past years as well and by the way it is going, it is working this time around as well.

If farmers and environmentalists from Punjab are to believed the issue of pollution by stubble is a non issue. According to Ominder Dutt, an environmentalist in Punjab, “The issue of stubble burning does not exist for 11months but the issue of industrial pollution in Ludhiana is prevalent, the water has become poisonous in the city but no one wants to address the big fish aka industrialists.” According to Oninder Dutt, the wastes from Thermal plants of Bathinda, Goindwaal, and industries in Ludhiana have done an irreparable damage to waters of Punjab. He expressed his sadness on dishonesty of environmentalists and politicians going after the farmers and not tackling the actual issues of pollution.

What are the solutions to stubble burning?

Ominder Dutt says that he has been able to convince farmers (although very few) to not burn stubble. He suggests that farmers in Punjab need to move to Nutritious Crop Farming. This is something that Prime minister talked about as well recently announcing 17 types of seeds. Ominder however admits that this has been taken up by farmers with small farms and will not become a practice until governments bring in the laws to make MSP on these nutritional crops. No farmer would risk growing a crop without an MSP and hence will always remain stuck in Paddy- Wheat cycle.

It is both impractical (in view the large number of farmers, running into millions) and also unjust to blame the farmers for the stubble burning. The farmers are not criminals, they are simply victims of the faulty farm mechanisation technology that is made available to them by the machine manufacturers. Therefore, instead of penalising and prosecuting the farmers, our focus should be on developing and improving the design of Combine Harvesters that do not leave the stubble behind. This can be easily done by the Combine Harvester manufacturers by slightly tweaking the design of their machines with a modified cutter that chops of the plant from the bottom, nearer to the base and does not leave behind the stubble. (The morale of the story is that if you want a clean shave, use a sharp razor and not a trimmer that leaves behind stubble.) The government on its part should strictly regulate and allow only such Combine Harvesters to function that conform to the laid down standards of stubble size.

Incentivising farmers and giving them their due as suggested by SC will solve the problem. The industries which are converting this agri-waste/crop residue into wealth in the form of cattle feed or fuel briquettes, may also be suitably incentivised and subsidised.

The aim of the article is not to snub the fact that pollution problem exists in Delhi-NCR but it is also wrong to blame farmers for the problem. It is time we all look into what is wrong and start holding government accountable for projecting farmers as criminals.

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