How stubble burning has become the biggest culprit for poor air quality in Delhi NCR
Environment, Featured

How stubble burning has become the biggest culprit for poor air quality in Delhi NCR

Burning of paddy straw every year during October and November and wheat straw during April in Punjab and Haryana are the major contributors of air pollution in Delhi-NCR, as the smoke travels towards the national capital.

In Delhi, it mixes with the fog and creates a toxic smoggy winter every year. This yearly affair, not only makes it difficult for Delhiites to breathe but also turn the city into a gas chamber.

While road dust and pollution from heavy vehicles are primarily responsible for the noxious pall that sets on Delhi and other urban centres, the burning of paddy stubble by farmers to clear their fields for the next crop is considered to be responsible for 20% of the smog.

The latest satellite images released by Nasa show an increasing trend in stubble burning cases across Punjab and Haryana over the past 15 days. The images show that with the change in season, farmers in the two states are preparing their fields for the next crop. This means they are burning stubble in their fields. Stubble burning in fields is banned. But farmers cite lack of alternative to continue with the traditional and unscientific practice. The governments of Haryana and Punjab have so far not come up with any concrete actionable plan to deal with the challenge.

Why stubble burning?

Stubble burning is a common practice followed by farmers to prepare the field for sowing of wheat in November as there is little time left between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat. Burning of Rice straw and wheat residue is not necessary for the farmers because of the availability of technology and its higher economic value as dry fodder.

Scores of paddy growers in Punjab and Haryana continue to defy the ban on stubble burning, claiming they are “compelled” to do so in the absence of any financial support from the government for farm waste management.

Lack of awareness This is due to lack of spreading awareness among farmers, who are in a hurry to dispose of the paddy stubble in order to start fresh sowing from Rabi season. In some instances, in Punjab and Haryana, local village panchayats have allowed farmers to burn stubble, and in some other cases, they have threatened to cut the stubble and dump them in front of the Collector’s office.

Immediate action is needed to prevent farmers from burning stubble, otherwise it will be a repeat of previous years, when smog will set in with the early onset of winter in Delhi. Farmers say they are unable to bear costs for cutting off and transporting stubble for disposal, and burning them is the only way out. Punjab to post officers to curb stubble burning: Paddy is grown on 65 lakh acres in Punjab. After harvesting, about 20 million tonnes of straw is left on the fields. It is estimated that 15 million tonnes of straw is burnt by farmers for to clear the fields and make them ready for the next crop. With paddy ready for harvest, the Punjab government has directed the procurement agencies to ensure prompt lifting of the crop from markets. Also, to curb the menace of stubble burning, the State has decided to appoint nodal officers in 8,000 paddy growing villages.

Is stubble burning the only solution?

Not really, but it is one of the easiest and cheapest methods available to farmers as of now. There are other options we can look at: The available paddy straw can be effectively used for power generation, which will go a long way towards overcoming the problem of disposal of crop residues and power deficit in the region. Suitable machinery for collection, chopping and in situ incorporation of straw is required. There is great potential for making investments in paddy straw-based power plants which can help avoid stubble burning to a large extent and also create employment opportunities. Incorporation of crop residues in the soil can improve soil moisture and help activate the growth of soil microorganisms for better plant growth. Convert the removed residues into enriched organic manure through composting. The government can offer to buy stubble from farmers at a fixed rate, so that farmers can recover the cost of cutting off and transporting stubble. These can be used for rope making, and already some farmers have started doing this. New opportunities for industrial use such as extraction of yeast protein can be explored through scientific research.

Steps taken by the Government to mitigate air pollution caused due to stubble burning

A new Central Sector Scheme on ‘Promotion of Agricultural Mechanization for in-situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi for the period from 2018-19 to 2019-20 has been announced by the Hon’ble Finance Minister in his budget speech this year (estimated cost – Rs. 1151.80 crore).

Possible Solutions to Crop Residue Burning

By raising funds from the Green Climate Fund board, the government can help farmers meet partially or fully the cost of clearing their farms of crop residue by means other than burning it.

The conflict between a large number of farmers and the government of Punjab over burning of paddy straw in the fields has been reported from various places. The government has declared burning of paddy residue in the fields illegal and any farmer resorting to it is liable to an action. The defiant attitude of various factions of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) has made this as an issue of civil conflict which could threaten peace. In the interest of the environment and the health of people of all sections, it needs a solution. Crop residue burning must stop to keep soil health as also save the health of people, animals and plants. The insistence to burn it speaks of the low level of conscientiousness of BKU leaders. They must come forward with viable solutions and for those solutions, they can organise struggles and also enlist the support of civil society organisations.

NGT direction

The intervention of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has added to the complexity of the problem. The directions of the NGT to the Punjab government issued two years ago – in 2015 – to come up with an action plan for at least one district in the state to prevent burning of crop residue in a bid to check air pollution, has put the state government in dock. Except for declaring burning of crop residue as illegal, the government has not taken this issue seriously to comply with the NGT direction. Various factions of the BKU are displaying defiance to the state government’s order to register cases against farmers who burn crop residue. The farmers express their inability to avoid crop residue burning in the fields in order to clear the fields quickly to sow the next crop. They also lack the resources to clear straw by other means such as mixing it in the soil through machinery or collecting it through bundles to be delivered to thermal plants. The state government has approached the Union government to provide Rs 100 as subsidy per quintal paddy procured to help the farmers meet the cost of disposal without burning the residue. The Union government has not provided any favourable response to it. The farmers are refusing to accept government orders without any financial support, which the latter does not have the capacity.

Two alternatives possible

As the political and bureaucratic leadership has dealt with this issue casually, they have not examined alternatives available to tackle this problem. There are two issues which need to be looked into:

Technology handle: One is related to technology to handle the disposal of crop residue which is produced in large quantities – it runs into millions of tonnes. There are machines which can harvest crop residue and convert it into bundles mechanically for onward transportation and sale to thermal plants to produce electricity. Technologies which can convert crop residue into valuable manure are also available. Another set of machines can cut crop residue and mix it into soil through tractor-operated machines. The latter two types of technologies can help save the environment and also improve soil fertility. But such technologies/machines are costly and beyond the reach of small, marginal and even medium farmers which account for more than 95% of the cultivators in Punjab. The adoption of such technologies could solve this problem with the financial support/subsidy by the Punjab government. As the government is in serious financial stress for the last more than two decades, it is unable to think beyond continuation of power subsidy.

Funding under Paris deal: The above discussion brings us to the second issue of arrangement of financial resources to settle the issue of burning of crop residue to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. This takes us to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement renewed commitments to mobilise $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 and continue to mobilise finances at that level till 2025. To operationalise this, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was made the central agency to serve the Paris Agreement. The national and regional/state entities, both public and private, are encouraged to apply directly for funding from GCF. The GCF board is urging countries to pursue high quality funding proposals to mitigate climate change problems. In June 2016, the GCF board announced a $200 million direct access support to climate change projects and programmes.

India has nominated the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) as a national designated authority which can act as the interface between the GCF and the country. Until July 2016, the GCF has approved funding of 15 projects and programmes totaling $424.3 million and had set an additional target of $2.5 billion by end of 2016. Unfortunately, India has not received any funding from the GCF.

Punjab must access GCF funds to help farmers

The government of Punjab must prepare a viable project/programme specially related to working out solutions to environment protection, including avoiding of burning of crop residue and access funds from the GCF, the central agency made to serve the Paris Agreement, board via NABARD, especially through its regional office located at Chandigarh.

Instead of knocking at the doors of the Modi government, Punjab must pay serious attention towards working a viable plan which is acceptable to the GCF board. Instead of entering into conflict with the farmers, the government must work in cooperation with them to convert this problem into an opportunity. By raising funds from the GCF board, the government can provide the necessary funds to farmers to meet partially or fully the cost of clearing their farms of crop residue by means other than burning it. The solution to this problem is possible both technically and financially.

What is required is serious planning at the level of the government and a proper dialogue rather than threat of legal action against the farmers. The farmers’ unions have to be taken on board. Their leaders have to realise that defiantly burning crop residue is against the larger interests of the farming community. Continued pollution by the industry is no justification for the farmers to add more to it by burning their own fields. It does not speak well of them as the unions are expected to reflect greater social responsibility rather than crude sectional interests. They have the right to put pressure on the government and offer cooperation for viable solutions. It is possible to do so.

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