Cash incentives: A way to curb stubble burning
Once the incentive is given, farmers can’t therefore later claim that they didn’t have adequate financial resources on hand to undertake stubble management
Since 20 million of paddy stubble every year is an unmanageable quantity, the best alternative in my thinking was to allow farmers to take care of the stubble they produce using all kinds of options they have, including utilising the farm labour to plough back the stubble or for utilise it for mulching. Many environmentally-conscious Punjab farmers do ensure that stubbles are not put on fire, and a lot can be learnt from them
Five years back, writing in The Hindustan Times (Oct 11, 2017), I had asked for a monetary package for farmers to serve as an incentive for not burning paddy stubbles. This in my understanding was in line with the United Nations concept of 'payment for ecosystem services' approach which is now being followed through selected projects in several countries.
Punjab government's proposal to the Commission for Air Quality Management to provide farmers with an incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre for not putting paddy stubbles to fire and thereby choking the atmosphere leading to a spike in air pollution over New Delhi comes once again as a breath of much-needed fresh air. Earlier too, former Chief Ministers Prakash Singh Badal and Capt Amarinder Singh had been asking for a cash incentive to farmers.
Punjab alone produces 20 million tonnes of paddy stubble every year, and the need has been to incentivising in situ management by farmers.
Wikipedia terms 'payment for ecosystem services' as incentives offered to farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service. By not burning stubbles, Punjab and Haryana farmers are in fact providing ecological services for which the society needs to make adequate payments for conservation. It is in this connection that I differed with the erstwhile Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, comprising several subject experts, which had earlier termed an incentive for not burning stubble as a 'perverse incentive'. This was a myopic decision, and I hope the policy makers now realise the folly of not relying on farmers – despite their demanding so time and again - to undertake the huge task of managing crop stubbles themselves provided they are given an added incentive.
Before we go any further on the stubble burning issue, let me first take you to Lyon in France where the administration has launched 'payment for ecosystem services' for farmers, beginning 2019 for a period of five years. Travelling through the region recently, I learnt that the French government has initiated initiatives at the national level to make payments to farmers as well as the local administration for preserving water quality and for biodiversity conservation in the Rhone Mediterranean and Corsica basins. The water agency provides an incentive of 70 per cent to the local government outfits and 100 per cent to farmers for conserving water resources, by shifting from chemical farming practices to agro-ecological systems. Covering 68,000 hectares, the ecological services approach is reaching out to 754 farmers.
For instance, in the Saone Beaujolais territory, farmers are being provided with a payment of Euro 11,000 per hectare to bring in a 20 per cent reduction in chemical pesticides, conserve 20 ponds, plant 130 trees and grow 10 km of hedges.
At a time when internationally there is an increasing realisation on the need to pay farmers for ecological services, India has been not very active when it comes to providing farmers with a little more confidence and make adequate payments to write-off the expenses they incur in conserving biodiversity, controlling air pollution or for food systems transformation leading predominantly to agro-ecological farming systems. At a time when a climate emergency prevails globally, business as usual is not the way forward. Policy makers have to look beyond the usual approaches to see how available resources can be put to better use, and perhaps the best way is to empower the farming communities to save environment.
Coming back to stubble burning, Punjab has reiterated the need to use cash incentive to farmers to emerge out of an air pollution crisis. While Punjab and Delhi have offered to contribute Rs 500 per acre each to the packet, the centre has been asked to chip in with the remaining Rs 1,500 per acre. Capt Amarinder Singh had earlier asked for Rs 2,000-crore from the Centre for the same purpose. It didn't come through.
Punjab has also maintained that if the Centre support is not coming through, it will begin by providing farmers with a financial support of Rs 1,000 per acre to begin with. This is not the first time that farmers are being promised cash incentive for taking care of stubble burning; a Supreme Court directive in 2019 had also forced a similar kind of incentive of Rs 2,500 per acre. But the way it was implemented left a lot to be desired. In fact, the over-enthusiasm by the government agencies to push machines to control stubble burning had overshadowed the scheme to incentivise farmers.
Despite selling a large number of machines to curb stubble burning, partially on a subsidy support, the area under crop fires has only increased. Last year, more than 71,000 cases of crop fires were reported. This increase was observed despite the State government appointing nodal officers to keep an eye on illegal crop burning incidents somehow indicating that while the solution to the vexed problem of stubble burning lied elsewhere, the official interest was in selling more machines. More than 75,000 machines for stubble burning had been sold till last year, despite knowing that these machines remain operational for not more than a few weeks in a year.
On the other hand, from the very beginning farmers have been asking for an incentive to allow them to undertake stubble management. They have been insisting that managing stubble comes with an additional cost, and given the short window they have before planting the next crop, an incentive will help them to effectively reduce fire incidents. Since 20 million of paddy stubble every year is an unmanageable quantity, the best alternative in my thinking was to allow farmers to take care of the stubble they produce using all kinds of options they have, including utilising the farm labour to plough back the stubble or for utilise it for mulching. Many environmentally-conscious Punjab farmers do ensure that stubbles are not put on fire, and a lot can be learnt from them.
The best way I think is to provide the cash incentive to farmers before the paddy harvesting season begins. Using the data available on the marketing portals, every farmer should be given the cash incentive before they actually undertake paddy harvesting operations. Once the incentive is given, it should be made clear to them that those farmers who still resort to stubble burning will invite punitive action. Farmers cannot therefore later claim that they didn't have adequate financial resources on hand to undertake stubble management. The cash amount should truly work as an incentive, rather than coming later as compensation.
If only the Centre had responded earlier with an adequate cash package to incentivise farmers, I am sure stubble burning would have ceased to be a major environmental issue by now.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)