The Indian capital, Delhi’s air pollution, has turned from low to severe over the course of the Diwali weekend due to burning of crop stubbles in nearby states and people bursting crackers in violation of a Delhi state government ban.

While the festival of lights inevitably brings the problem of smoke and ash spewed by crackers, the bigger worry is that of farm fires — a phenomenon that has been gradually choking the national capital even though the vehicle load has somewhat eased because of Covid.

The problem of crop stubble burning is hurting our society in multiple ways. It virtually buries Delhi under a cloud of haze every year, as well as destroys beneficial soil bacteria. Thousands of tons of paddy straw, convertible to green fuels or manure, simply go up in smoke.

The recurring administrative paralysis has now put the ball in the Supreme Court’s domain. Indeed this is one situation that requires wisdom, sagacity and stringent action for the benefit of society.

Burning crop residue is a crime under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981. On December 10, 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned crop residue burning in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab where the practice is prevalent.

In M.C. Mehta vs Union India, (Order in IA Nos.158128 And 158129 of 2019 In Writ Petition (C)No.13029 Of 1985), the Supreme Court had asked the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to stop their farmers from stubble burning immediately.

It has also warned that their entire administrative and police hierarchy, from the Chief Secretary to the sarpanch to the local policeman, will be held responsible even if one instance of stubble burning occurs in the future.

The apex court held state governments responsible for stubble burning and said that instances of stubble burning would be penalized. It has made the local and civic bodies as “personally responsible” as the errant farmer who puts fire to his crop residue, putting in effect the ‘Polluter Pays Principle.’

Stick alone won’t be effective

But wielding the stick alone won’t work. Only this week, the number of farm fire incidents in Punjab crossed an all-time high of 73,000. That too, within days of First Information Reports being lodged against farmers and arrests being made in adjoining states of Delhi. A solution to this complicated rigmarole requires, besides political will, sincerity and earnestness for the sake of everybody’s health.

What prompts farmers to burn their rice stubble in northern India?

A combine ‘harvester and thresher’ used in harvest of paddy, the machine leaves behind a significant length of straw and stubble on the field. This straw, lying on the field, comprises the stalk and the leaves of the crop with limited nutrients. It is reported that is September- October each year, farmers burn an estimated 35 million tons of crop waste from their paddy fields as a low cost straw disposal practice.

With often only a couple of weeks gone between the rice-harvesting season and the start of wheat-sowing, farmers burn the debris to clear the field quickly for the new crop. For them, every day matters.

The apex court has realized that regulatory action won’t be enough to resolve the problem. After all, the majority of our farmers are small and marginal, who struggle to employ farm machines needed for sowing, let alone afford equipment required to clear stubble from their fields.

In its wisdom, therefore the court has directed that a sum of Rs 100 per 100 kilograms (quintal) be provided, especially to small and marginal farmers, along with farm machinery free of cost to prevent them from burning the stubble.

However, such a measure would amount to states having to pay Rs 2,000/acre to support such operations besides the additional cost of providing the machines. Moreover, the 2-4 week time window available between harvest of the summer crop and sowing of the winter varieties presents a time challenge. The result is that no state has embraced the proposal earnestly.

Delhi state Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has expressed the hope that a new technology developed by the Indian Institute of Technology to spray a chemical that will convert the leftover crop into manure might provide the solution.

Other scientific solutions can be used productively as well. For example, conversion of rice straw into bricks or blocks for use as biogas or ethanol which can substitute pollution-causing petrol and diesel.

It is here that a robust enforcement mechanism, well regulated, under the central government can go a long way. Earlier this month, the central government introduced a new law through an ordinance to curb air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. The new law dissolved the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) and instead set up a commission with over 20 members.

It also says that “any non-compliance or contravention of any provisions/rules or order/direction of the Commission will be an offence punishable with a jail term up to five years or with fine up to Rs one crore or with both.” This will apply to the red zone for stubble burning — Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh apart from the Delhi-NCR region.

However, matters related to agriculture are not only sensitive but also complicated. With farmers comprising the country’s largest workforce spread across thousands of farms dotting the countryside, the job of policing them becomes all the more complex. Under the Indian Constitution, agriculture falls in the concurrent list, which means neither the central government nor state government can regulate this completely.

The central government is due to submit another report to the Supreme Court to outline the proposed measures to stop stubble burning. Still, the bottom line is that New Delhi will need the support and cooperation of adjoining states for addressing the problem.

Paddy straw can be a potential goldmine

Given the dynamics, the only practical solution can be when both farmers and their state governments respectively see a sufficiently strong financial motivation. World over green fuels are catching on as geographies such as the European Union and Japan are moving towards zero-emission.

India is sitting on a potential goldmine. Thousands of tons of paddy straw can be converted into green fuels like ethanol or even compressed natural gas. Of course, such a solution will require a chain of supportive infrastructure such as warehousing to store the paddy straw bales as well as sufficient processing capacity for their conversion into fuel.

Equally importantly, India will need to set up an efficient logistics system for collection of the paddy straw from the farmers and transporting them to storage hubs. This will not be an easy challenge. However, given that the Food Corporation of India already has the storage infrastructure for wheat, rice and other crops for which it pays a minimum support price, the state machinery should be able to cope with this demand.

Such an initiative will be timely as the government is keen to boost its ethanol blending program, which currently stands at 5% compared to a targeted 10% for petrol. While it may take time to implement this fully, the program can go a long way in trimming India’s bloated crude oil import bill.

The problem of farm fires has again underscored the need for better technology for our rural sector. Drone technology has already rescued a swathe of northern India in combating the menace of locusts. Speeding up of the draft rules can go a long way in detecting and fighting stubble burning.

Moreover, effective digitization can make the task of spreading awareness among farmers that much easier. In essence, the means are very much at hand, if the will is there. Since India has pledged to drive down its emission intensity as part of the Paris Climate Change accord, it is hoped that robust regulation and scientific solution would drive in a new era in handling stubble burning- sooner than later.

(Dr Poornima Advani is former chairperson of National Commission for Women, and runs a legal firm called The Law Point. The views expressed are personal.)

–IANS

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