WITH THE END of monsoon and advent of winter in sight, the problem of thick smog over large parts of north India is expected to come back to haunt the residents. The intense smog caused by a variety of reasons may vary by only a per cent or two this year but the intensity would remain almost the same leading to chronic lung ailments, breathing problems, poor visibility and consequently disruption in rail, air and road traffic.
Television studios would come alive with heated debates while people would blame all and sundry for the failure of governments to tackle the annual issue. Subsequently NGOs would step in and a blame game would start to shift responsibilities. Finally towards the end, governments would renew their resolve to take effective steps to prevent such recurrences and then forget all about it once rains drive away the smog.
Ironically the problem of stubble burning emerged only towards the end of the last century when mechanised harvesting combines were introduced in the country. The harvesting done by the machines leave behind four to six inches of stubble.
What the governments need to do is to review and come out with the steps taken by its agencies to first identify and then tackle the situation. At a recent workshop organised by a Delhi-based Communications group "Climate Trends” in Chandigarh, the chief Principal Secretary to Punjab Chief Minister Suresh Kumar admitted that while the central government had asked various Oil Companies and others last year to sign MoUs with Punjab government for setting up plants to make ethanol from stubble but not a rupee was invested.
The smog, according to experts is a result of a combination of factors including smoke from stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh and that caused by cracker bursting during the festive season including Diwali which all adds up to the existing pollution caused by the large number of vehicles plying in the northern region, particularly the NCR region.
While farmers and others from the region think that the major part of the blame is being shifted on stubble burning, there is no doubt that the smoke from burning fields is a major factor. Satellite imagery of the region shows large number of fields in the region under fire.
Ironically the problem of stubble burning emerged only towards the end of the last century when mechanised harvesting combines were introduced in the country. The harvesting done by the machines leave behind four to six inches of stubble. It is difficult to sow the next crop with the stubble coming in way. This prompts farmers to put the fields on fire even though it leads to loss of nutrients in the soil.
Another factor that prompts farmers to put their fields to fire is the small window available for sowing wheat. While paddy is ready for harvest, most farmers wait till the onset of Navratras to start harvesting. The government has mandated that the wheat crop must be sown before November 15 so that it receives rainfall and sunshine in good measure which would help in a good harvest.
The crucial time for the wheat crop to mature is during mid-April, when the temperature is about 35 degree centigrade. For the wheat crop to give maximum yield by then, farmers must sow the crop latest by November 15, so that it grows for a full 140-150 day duration. The short time-frame between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat leaves little time for the farmers to remove the stubble even if they want to do it. They also try to safe on employing manual labour or special machines to uproot stubble and they resort to the easier and cheaper method of putting the fields to fire.
Experts believe that while farmers are blamed for the rising pollution, little has been done to ameliorate their lot. The costs of inputs have been going up while they are not getting fair price for the crops they grow. They say farmers are in no position to bear additional burden of purchasing and operating machines like the Turbo Happy Seeder which can take care is the problem of stubble. Such machines are required for only a month or so during the entire year which is not economically viable alternative with them.
Government will have to come out with sustainable and practical solutions to deal with the problem. For instance it can introduce attractive monetary incentives for those farmers who don’t put their fields to fire.
However instead of actively working on solutions to the problem, the governments had in the past resorted to impose fines on the farmers to putting their fields to fire. Even that has not acted as a deterrent as farmers say they are left with no choice. The Punjab government last year imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 per field put in fire. The state government data showed 2,338 farmers were fined and Rs 65.92 lakh collected in fines. Subsequently the state governments even sought to register cases such farmers but had to give up in the face of stiff resistance from political parties. Rebel Aam Aadmi Party leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira even went to the extent of lifting fire to fields as a symbolic gesture of support to farmers last year.
It is indeed not fair to shift the entire blame on farmers alone. As agriculture economy expert Devinder Sharma has been pointing out, the income of farmers has been declining over the years and the gap between the income of farmers and that of the employees has been widening. He has been advocating setting up of a Farmers Income Commission to compensate the farmers and ensure a minimum income for them. He says that agriculture distress is leading to all kinds of problems including the rising number of suicides by farmers.
Several suggestions are being mooted to tackle the issues faced by farmers. The one that is talked about a lot is the one relating to breaking down of paddy-wheat cycle and to introduce crop diversification. It is pointed out that crop diversification would result in larger income to the farmers and less dependence on water resources.
Everyone is aware of the fact that water levels in the northern region, particularly in Punjab and parts of Haryana, have been going down at an alarming rate and paddy cultivation is believed to be the main reason for it. Ironically the residents of the region are not rice eaters and yet the region is encouraged to grow paddy. A large quantity of paddy procured from the region is given at highly subsidised rate of Rs two per kilogram to the poor in certain other states. Farmers have a grouse that while heavy subsidy is being offered for rice in other states, farmers from Punjab and Haryana are not duly compensated.
Also they blame government policies and priorities for the present mess. They point out that when combine harvesters were introduced, the government should have foreseen the problem of stubble and should have taken adequate steps to deal with the problem like setting up cooperatives to run machines for removal of stubble.
As regards the pollution caused by burning of fields, farmers themselves are the first victims as it affects their families and villages the most.
The government also appears to be unsure or confused over its policies. For instance it wants states producing paddy to reduce land under paddy but at the same time fixes targets for paddy procurement at even higher levels. Evidently different government departments pull in different directions and are not on the same page.
As regards the pollution caused by burning of fields, farmers themselves are the first victims as it affects their families and villages the most. Experts point out at a variety of health issues caused by stubble burning. Doctors say that the first man made carcinogenic has been found in the smoke out of stubble burning.
Government will have to come out with sustainable and practical solutions to deal with the problem. For instance it can introduce attractive monetary incentives for those farmers who don’t put their fields to fire. The provision of funds can be done along with the allocation for Minimum Support Price.
Alternatively it could encourage drastic reduction in targets for paddy and incentives to move to other crops or horticulture. It could also think about setting up cooperatives to operate special machines during the harvesting period with nominal costs to the farmers. There cannot be a fit-all solution. What is required is a comprehensive policy and effective implementation through dedicated teams.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career. This article was first published in Tehelka.)
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