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Residue Burning Starts Again – Who Acted and Who Hasn’t?

stubble burning

It is that time of the year again when the national capital experiences a bout of severe pollution. Headlines have already started appearing about the deteriorating air quality. Delhi’s air quality set to dip with incoming dust, stubble burning, says The Indian Express headline while Wion news published a report titled Delhi-NCR fears air pollution as farmers continue stubble burning. Everybody knows the problem in a gist. That the farmers of adjoining states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana start stubble burning to prepare their farm for the next crop which majorly causes pollution in Delhi. The move, driven by shortened paddy growing cycles, left farmers with little time to allow the stubble to decompose on its own in preparation for the cropping season.  The situation used to be particularly problematic in western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, as stubble burning became the only way farmers knew of addressing their challenge.

One must point out that there have been several attempts now to tackle this challenge. The Centre and state governments in tandem with the scientific community have, in the recent years, tried to address this problem by providing farmers with other eco-friendly residue disposal avenues. The Centre has been coordinating this effort and providing financial assistance specially to deal with this situation. Subsidies are given to farmers, a large chunk of which is borne by the Centre, for stubble management machinery, while scientists at IIT Ropar have now come up with a stubble-removal machine (SRM) which can cut and collect crop residue in a trolley in one go.

Nevertheless, evidence for this year shows that one particular state’s administration is lagging far behind when it comes to reducing the incidences of stubble burning. The number of stubble burning incidents are far higher in Punjab as compared to western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. What is it that the state governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have done right that the Amarinder Singh led Congress government in Punjab has failed yet again? We discuss some answers here and also highlight how Punjab’s performance lags as compared to the other states.

A Perspective on Stuble Burning

Half a century ago, when India was just making in-roads into agricultural sufficiency, the country’s priority-stack had a very different orientation. With the introduction of high yielding variety seeds, mechanisation, irrigation facilities and fertiliser intervention, India managed to boost the production of important agri-produce. But, this boost also came at the cost of a rapid increase in residue generated, primarily from Paddy (rice), Fibre (cotton, jute) and Sugarcane crops. Since then, even as India’s agricultural sector gradually modernised, especially after 2014, the disposal of waste or residue was still accomplished primarily by burning.

The cumulative effects of these practices were felt across the Indo-Gangetic plains especially during the winters and majorly around the National Capital Territory of Delhi. With the rise in PM2.5 density in the air every winter, along with several other pollutants — schools, business and other operations are forced to shut down, atleast until this gross miscalculation can be naturally corrected. India is still reeling from the multi-sectoral impact of COVID-19, a pandemic known to impact pulmonary capabilities, in the current circumstances another slowdown due to air pollution will only make matters worse, if it becomes an eventuality.

The need to change

When the Narendra Modi led Indian government ratified the UN endorsed Paris agreement on climate change in 2016, reduction in pollution and emission levels became an important national goal. However, any changes that occurred with India’s vast statistics were understandably gradual. It was nevertheless imperative that North Indian winters be made breathable – as quickly as possible. The government, hastened by the discomfort of its citizens, introduced several measures to allow easy, efficient and sustainable disposal of agricultural waste. These massive efforts saw funds of over INR 5.71 billion being released to the state governments of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, for managing crop residue especially during the winter season (October- February). The recent ‘Pusa Decomposer’ developed by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) is also a step in the right direction. The decomposer, that uses microbes to hasten decomposition, can be used to reduce a field’s readiness time from around 90 to just 25 days!

Disrupting the balance

It is interesting to note that even as popular congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and many others, extensively toured the states of Punjab and Haryana recently – no mention was made of efforts to introduce sustainability into waste disposal methods. This development has come even as Haryana CM, Manohar Lal Khattar has approved an INR 13.04 billion plan to enable crop residue management.  A study to formalise alternative and environment-friendly means for residue management has revealed that Punjab has been burning over 42% of its crop residue whereas over the years BJP-goverened states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have achieved the easily manageable levels of 25.2% and 19% respectively. Moreover, Uttar Pradesh only accounts for 22.25 metric tonnes of residue being burnt even when it produces a staggering 115.64 MT of the same! Punjab’s non-adherance and resulting problems are also a repetitive trend which has been observed over the years.

Cause for alarm

In the recent data collected by the Consortium for Research on Agroecosystem Monitoring & Modelling from Space (CREAMS) through satellite imaging, has shown an alarming rise in the instances of burning crop residue in Congress-goverened Punjab. The consortium, functioning under the aegis of IARI, has also noted that Punjab has witnessed a total of 1,696 such events from September 22 to October 7 as opposed to only 343 and 122 events in BJP-led Harayana and Uttar Pradesh.

The recent congress-led protests which saw hundreds flouting social-distancing norms in effect due to the COVID-19 outbreak, can then be linked to the congress leadership’s blatant disregard for the safety of the very people it claims to represent. It is undeniable that rising levels of pollution may very well be a detrimental factor when it comes to the efforts being made to control the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, especially in New Delhi.

Effort in vain

Even when the Punjab government has released a circular warning of strict measures to control the alarming development, the implementation of the same is yet to be reported. It is equally important that the state administration redirect its attention away from unnecessary protests and towards helping local farmers manage crop residues. Although, it seems that this rapidly closing window of opportunity may once-again be ignored and a cause national concern may arise; one that actually requires rapid changes and the central government coming to the rescue.