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The burning question?

It is imperative to implement Dr. Swaminathan’s method to battle pollution.

The burning question?

No early breather in sight for some more days for Delhi, the rest of the National Capital Region and beyond, in the neighbouring states of north India. That is the bleak forecast from the weather experts who expect the air quality in the NCR to remain "severe" until the sun and wind factors improve. The daily counts of PM 2.5 and PM 10 pollutants show no signs of an early fall to the standard or tolerable (safe) levels. Alarms raised by pollution watchdogs and the news media no longer seem to show any way out of the citizens' health predicament. Resigning to this hopeless state of affairs and the combined failure of municipal, state and Central government authorities alike, seems to have become the new normal.

But are we fated to live in this pollution balloon? Is there nothing we can do except blaming each other or passing the buck on to others – to the authorities in the Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi state governments, while the Centre's National Green Tribunal keeps accusing them and passing judgments on all and sundry for non-implementation of everything under the missing sun?
We all know that there are several factors contributing to the maddening rate of pollution which compels us to shut schools for certain hours, even days, so as not to expose our children to health risks. Medical experts have advised against morning walks or any exercise in the open air, including the marathons and half marathons – pride events of any city worth its name. One American airline has gone to the extent of cancelling its India service for some time until the pollution position improves.
We also know that pollution is a hydra-headed monster. Crop stubble burning by farmers, diesel and petrol driven vehicles, over 10.5 million (1.5 crore) registered in Delhi alone, mountains of landfills catching fire, like the North Delhi Municipal site at Bhalswa, big and small factories still operating in urban limits, and ever-shrinking spans of green areas like the Aravali hills – all need to be tackled on a war footing. Easier said than done; but, ignore them at your peril. That's exactly what we have been doing for a long time. But it can't go on any longer.
Stubble burning comes at the top of the list every winter from mid-October to mid-November, year on year. This year is no exception. This is not the first season crop residue has been burning all over the place – Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and UP. Yet, the surprise of surprise, the powers that keep forgetting home advice that is duly available.
Almost exactly a year ago last November, the country's top farm scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, had recommended a way out of this problem which engulfs us annually. He had suggested to Prime Minister Narendra Modi a remedy on the sidelines of an international biodiversity congress held in New Delhi.
Dr Swaminathan, the father of India's green revolution, had outlined a way to turn crop stubble into a source of income for the farmers. Paddy straw can be used for making animal feed, cardboard, paper and other products, he had said.
"I have told the Prime Minister how we can make use of paddy straw instead of burning it. You cannot ask a farmer to stop burning paddy straw as he has to prepare his field for the next crop. You must find a mechanism to commercialise it." Technology is available for using paddy straw as animal feed. "Paddy straw enriched with urea and molasses is a wonderful animal feed," he had said.
India produces 140 million tonnes of paddy and 280 million tonnes of rice straw in a year – a rich source of useful products like animal feed, paper and packaging materials, besides providing extra income to farmers by way of selling their stubble instead of burning it and wasting time and trouble during the short few days between harvesting one crop and sowing the next one.
Let us turn to the Swaminathan Research Foundation, set up with the proceeds of prize money he received from the First World Food Prize in 1987 and seek his expertise to set up stubble conversion plants, one in each district of the states producing it and help the farmers earn more income they duly deserve for feeding us all, rather than turn to blaming them for no fault of theirs. The Central government should call a meeting of all the concerned chief ministers and their top officials to establish such plants on a war footing and rid the country of this recurring epidemic of man-made pollution.
The question the nation must ask is: what happened to Dr Swaminathatan's advice? Is it lying and dying in some cupboard, file or docket in official spaces, the all-powerful Prime Minister's Office without whose nod nothing moves ahead in the country?
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Subhash Chopra

Subhash Chopra

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