Millennium Post

Unhealthy realities

In a country that has been scaling heights of development and moving towards broader horizons both nationally and internationally, the farmer remains largely stuck in the rut of age-old practices with only little progressiveness. The dependency on monsoon is the most characteristic feature of the Indian farmer—the recurring phenomena of droughts and crop failure compound their woes; and if they happen to be saved of that and manage a significant harvest, the easier method of disposal of crop residue becomes a matter of national concern. The farmers of Punjab and Haryana burn stubble after harvesting the crop and the practice results in flow of toxic cloud persisting for days over the northern region of the country. Given that this is a seasonal practice that coincided with the time of the year with worst possible ait quality, it is most convenient to blame the toxic air on the farming practice when in fact, stubble burning only makes the bad air quality al lot more prominent and not cause it per se as lack of green cover and construction dust and vehicular emissions. However, in the wake of this prominent factor, governments have announced monetary incentives to check stubble burning. In line with the Supreme Court's guideline to incentivise farmers for stopping the burning of paddy crop stubble to check air pollution, the governments of Punjab and Haryana have announced a bonus of Rs 2,500 an acre for small and marginal farmers who are yet to start such activity. Effective alternatives to burning stubble include setting up biomass plants to process the crop residue without having to cause pollution. A crucial factor in this is the timing of introducing alternative methods so as to maximise the impact. It is obvious that this year is lost out to winter pollution but farmers are correct in saying that the incentives could have prevented them from burning stubble had it come in time. Moreover, it is of greater importance that the incentives to curb pollution through stubble burning be a permanent feature and not one as a damage control exercise. Although Punjab and Haryana are known widely for this practice, Madhya Pradesh has also lately seen increasing instances of stubble burning and farmer groups have decided to petition the Court to include them as well in such a package. Solution presents itself as it comes obvious that monetary incentives to farmers are effective in preventing smoke from post-harvest farms and a method instating an alternative to stubble-burning is something farmers are in support of too. The Haryana state government has announced an additional Rs 1,000 an acre incentive for custom-hiring centres and straw baler units as a means to support their operational costs. The Rs 2,500 an acre has been calculated by assuming 25 quintals of paddy is harvested from an acre of land in Punjab and Haryana. With respect to Punjab, in order to claim compensation, farmers must fill a self-declaration pro forma with their panchayat office by November 30 and the amount would be

directly credited to the bank account of the eligible farmer. As far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned, its less conspicuous

but still very much extant problem of stubble burning, the state is looking towards setting up biofuel plants in each district where farmers can sell their cop residue to generate electricity.

The problem of stubble burning comes to highlight primarily due to the toxic pre-winter air in the national capital and surrounding regions but the issue to which attention must necessarily be directed is that of the farmer and the meagre means they are left with to practice their profession and manage their livelihood. Air quality is a perennial concern but talks about it are but seasonal. Framing practices on the other hand are a year-round concern and addressing this will significantly help mitigate the seasonal effects of it that looms in the form of air pollution. The total area under paddy in Punjab is around three million hectares, of which straw management is required on around two million. In the remaining areas, farmers have own arrangements for straw management. The state produces around 20 million tonnes of paddy straw each year. The concern over growing so much paddy is a different discussion altogether when there is large-scale nutritional imbalance in the country and any step in the direction of food security cannot be a holistic one in the absence of a variety of food for its nutritional content. Further, with the equally grave concern of water crisis and recurring droughts, subsidies for water-guzzling paddy crop is a misplaced step as it only compounds the situation in many respects. A shift to other crops is a much-needed change for a range of favourable effects including having greater variety of food to address nutritional deficiency, creating a more holistic system of food security, mitigating the problem of less water requirement for farming, etc. An apt example is the support to cultivation of millets which is not a water-intensive crop and provides much of the necessary nutrients. The record for this year so far has been that of 2.9 million hectares paddy crop has been harvested in almost 90 per cent of the area, meaning that the possibility of stubble burning in 10-15 per cent of the remaining area (30,000-35,000 hectares) if farmers do not absorb corrective measures in time. Stubble burning is arguably not the sole reason for north India's toxic air but is one to contribute significantly to the crisis. An alternative to this convenient practice is the solution and it must be implemented urgently.

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