Incentivising farmers a solution to water down farm fire practice
If the govt could find Rs45,000 cr to provide for additional cost of DA hike, there’s no reason why an additional Rs2,000 cr crore could not be made available for stubble management
In fact now, the cat is out of the bag, the farmers' stubble burning contributes to only 4 per cent of the pollution as per the chart. So we are targeting something which is totally insignificant," a Supreme Court Bench observed on Monday. The apex court was hearing a petition on worsening air pollution in the Delhi NCR region, and sought 'emergent measures' to immediately control what has become an annual health crisis.
Supreme Court's observation came after the Solicitor General presented an affidavit which had a table showing the share of air pollution from agriculture burning during the winter months to be only 4 per cent. Although no source for the study was given, the chart showed industry and transport to be the major offenders given its share of 30 per cent and 28 per cent of PM 2.5 concentration in air, respectively. This prompted the Court to say: "What is this? Now, it has become a fashion to bash farmers."
Bashing farmers has indeed become a national pastime. Not only for the toxic air that hangs over Delhi, coinciding with Diwali every year; farmers are invariably blamed for the declining groundwater level; for the increasing pesticides residues in food crops; for causing traffic snarls during protests in cities and even for the unusual delay in speeding up land acquisitions. So much so that farmers are also blamed for producing a record food surplus year after year, which many believe is because they get an assured price. Name a problem and the chances are that most fingers would be pointing to the favourite whipping boy – farmer. Just like the rich developed countries blame the poor and developing countries for almost every problem that inhibits the planet, it has become a usual practice for the elite in India to blame farmers.
As New Delhi starts getting engulfed with a thick layer of smog, the media starts training its guns on farmers, blaming them for the increase in farm fires that adds to the pollution level. It has become customary for the TV media to accuse farmers of showing a complete indifference towards the serious health crisis people of New Delhi are forced to suffer, but many a times calling for exemplary punishment to be meted out to them. As if farmers are doing it deliberately, often heard panellists suggest stringent penalties along with FIR to be lodged against the erring farmers. On the social media too, choicest abuses are thrown at farmers for choking the capital city with toxic air.
"If only Punjab farmers had diversified from paddy to other crops, the number of farm fires would have come down drastically," a resident from New Delhi called me the other day to convey. "Why can't farmers learn to plough the stubble back into the field rather than burn it?" asked another citizen. When I asked whether you have ever been to a crop field, the answer was no. Then why you think farmer doesn't have the wisdom to put the stubble into the field to be used as manure if it was possible, I asked. "They are being foolish," he shouted back. "If they knew we wouldn't have been breathing foul air." These are just a few reflections of the anger emanating from ignorance and disconnect people in the cities generally have with farming and agriculture. Notwithstanding the blame game that has been going on for quite some time, stubble burning has emerged as a major environmental and public health crisis. It is not that the farmers are unaware of the huge environmental cost after all when a farmer puts his crop field to fire he and his family are the first one to be hit. Farmers know that crop burning is not useful for the soil organisms, but feel helpless given the cost benefit equation. Even a comparatively low contribution of farm fires to Delhi's air pollution, as the Supreme Court was informed, does not mean that the harmful impacts being felt in villages, and towns are in any way less destructive. It is therefore important to implement an effective and viable solution.
Since Punjab alone produces about 200-lakh tonnes of stubble every paddy harvest, and given the tight window they have to manage the residue before undertaking the sowing of next crop of wheat, policy makers have been gung-ho over the application of technology to address the crisis, the solution that farmers have been coming up with has been systematically ignored. All that the farmers have been asking is an incentive of Rs 200 per quintal to take care of the additional cost in residue management, but policy makers had ignored it. They instead pushed more machines, gave subsidies and also made farm machinery available on custom-hiring basis.
Punjab has already sold 76,000 machines to farmers, and has set up 16,000 custom hiring centres. Haryana has given 32,000 machines and has 4,000-off custom hiring centres. And yet, the numbers of farm fires have only risen. Punjab has meanwhile appointed 8,000 nodal officers to keep a watch on stubble burning incidents, and advise farmers to get away from this practice, and that too hasn't worked to contain farm fires. Huge penalties and even FIRs have been launched against farmers who resort to farm fires and yet it hasn't worked. It clearly shows there is something fundamentally wrong the way the government had approached the crisis. If only the government had heard the farmers, listened to what they felt was the right way to manage the stubble, probably stubble burning would have been history by now. Former Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh had in 2017 asked for a financial support of Rs 2,000 crore to be given to farmers as an incentive for managing the stubbles, who alone had the capacity to manage the voluminous stock, but it was turned down with the Centre saying it had no money. Even though the Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority had termed the incentive idea to be 'perverse' I believe the only workable solution is to give farmers an incentive to take care of the stubbles. Whether they use farm labour or hire additional workers or machines, whether they re-plough it or use it for mulching or find other uses, let's leave it to them.
Instead of subsidising machines, which would in any case remain un-operational for more than 340 days in a year, providing incentive to farmers instead was the better option. Resources are actually not a problem; it's all a question of priorities. If the government this year could find Rs 45,000 crore to provide for the additional cost of DA hike from 17 to 28 per cent, and further to 31 per cent, I see no reason why an additional Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 3,000 crore could not be made available for stubble management. Instead of bashing farmers, if only we had listened to them Delhi wouldn't have been left choking every winter.
(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)