Misplaced priorities, governance failure in Punjab choke Delhi’s air
by Ashwani Mahajan on 15 Nov 2023 0 Comment

If part of the Punjab government’s freebies had been allocated towards incentivising farmers, the state would have been able to curb stubble burning better. Delhi is close to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; stubble burning in these states impacts the entire National Capital Region. For the past several years, from September to December, air pollution due to smoke has increased to the level of suffocation in north India.


In Delhi, the PM 2.5 AQI (Air Quality Index), a measure of fine particulate matter, reached 481 on November 7, a level classified as dangerous. This is said to be more than 69 times the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline value.


The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the Delhi government has closed schools and imposed limits on the movement of vehicles on the road. Not only this, the general public is avoiding coming out of their homes. Those who have respiratory problems are already in trouble, but the general public is also suffocating.


What Is the cause of the problem?


In the past, governments and some people in the media who were unaware of the real cause of the problem, cited Diwali firecrackers as the main culprit. Even though there was no sign of firecrackers for several days before Diwali, the declining air quality indicated that perhaps a deliberate attempt had been made in the past to divert attention from the real reason.


Experts said that apart from normal activities, which include construction and vehicular pollution, smoke starts affecting the air quality from the beginning of winter. But over the last decade or so, this problem has become more serious during winters.


The main reason is the burning of stubble in north India, including parts of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. This was also prevalent to a lesser extent in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.


Paddy is typically harvested in September-October and at about the same time, the fields have to be prepared for sowing wheat. For this, it is necessary to clear the residue or the stubble left after paddy is harvested. Farmers say that to clear the stubble, special machines are required, which are expensive. They find it more economical to burn the stubble than clear the field by other means. Therefore, farmers burn the stubble in large quantities. Since stubble is burnt simultaneously in all these states within a short span of time, the smoke not only affects that area but also affects the surrounding areas. Since Delhi is close to these three states, stubble burning impacts the entire National Capital Region.


The good news this time is that stubble burning has come down in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan during the 45-day period from September 15 to October 29 by 44.3 per cent from levels last year. However, of the 6,391 incidents of stubble burning in the entire region, 5,254 occurred in Punjab alone. In Haryana, the total incidents reported were 1,068, which means Punjab’s contribution to pollution due to stubble burning is almost five times that of Haryana.


Over a longer period this season, there has been a spurt in stubble burning in Punjab, whereas Haryana has been able to control it significantly. Images released by NASA prove this. A break-up of the cumulative figures of stubble burning till November 6 shows that Punjab recorded 19,463 farm fires (65.6 per cent of the total), followed by Madhya Pradesh with 6,218 (20.97 per cent), Haryana with 1,579 (5.3 per cent), Uttar Pradesh with 1,270 (4.2 per cent), Rajasthan with 1,109 (3.7 per cent), and Delhi with two.


In November 2019, the Supreme Court lambasted the governments of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh for not taking adequate measures to stop stubble burning. The court asked these state governments to offer an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal of crop to encourage farmers not to burn stubble.


Steps taken by Haryana


While Haryana’s control of stubble burning is a big relief, the question is why Punjab failed. In this regard, we need to learn about the steps that Haryana took to curb stubble burning, which Punjab should also follow. The Haryana government has been distributing machines and appliances such as Super SMS (Super Straw Management System), Rotavator, Happy Seeder and Zero Till Seed Drill in large numbers so that farmers could avoid the practice of stubble burning.


The farmers who used these machines last year benefited significantly and their yields also increased. Due to this experience, more farmers have started using these machines, although some say they are not able to due to the high rent (Rs 2,000 per acre). The Haryana government had been giving an incentive of Rs 1,000 per hectare to farmers for collecting and baling the stubble after harvesting.


Last year, the incentive amount was started for in-situ stubble management on the farm itself. The state government is also giving Rs 10 lakh as an incentive to panchayats in villages in the red zone – a classification based on incidences of burning crop residue – for not burning stubble. Every year, the budget for various incentives has been increasing. It is also true that the government’s efforts towards educating farmers about these machines and increasing awareness among them about the alternative uses of stubble has started bearing fruit.


Why Punjab is failing


While Haryana has addressed the problem to a large extent, it’s unfortunate that Punjab has failed to solve the issue of stubble burning year after year. Haryana adopted a judicious mix of policies, including investing in appropriate technology and machines, offering incentives, and penalising farmers who defied the law.


Punjab, on the other hand, is a laggard in such efforts. Though the Punjab government claims it has invested in machines, they are seemingly inadequate. However, efforts to incentivise farmers not to burn stubble have been lacking. It is said that the Punjab government doesn’t have the financial resources to meet expenses related to curbing stubble burning. We understand that the weak financial condition of the Punjab government is due to ongoing offers of freebies, which include free electricity.


As a result, the state government’s debt has been increasing. Had a part of these freebies been allocated towards incentivising farmers to desist from stubble burning, Punjab would have been able to move to a better scenario. The Punjab government has also decided not to penalise farmers for failing to comply with the law, which is also complicating the problem further.




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