The national capital region has been choking because of alarming levels of air pollution since Diwali. It is important to note that the smoke from the firecrackers during Diwali is only a catalyst and the real trigger lies far in the fields of Punjab and Haryana.
While it is a sad reality that over the years NCR has become used to moderate amount of pollutants in its air for the first 8-9 months of the year on account of vehicular and industrial emissions, the last three months only become worse due to burning of stubble or crop waste after harvesting rice in Punjab and Haryana.
Stubble burning is prohibited or at least not encouraged in most parts of the world including China and London. However, it is also a fairly common activity. In India, it is a prohibited and punishable offence but millions of tonne of stubble are burnt on an annual basis. Several reports peg the quantum at 30-40 million tonnes annually.
"For us, it is a low-cost way to dispose of the crop waste after harvesting the paddy. We are small farmers, we don't have the means to buy a machine which will cost around Rs 1 lakh and will be used only for one month in a year. Who will pay for its wear and tear throughout the year? It is an expensive alternative," a farmer from a village near Patiala told CNBC-TV18 on condition of anonymity.
The activity is so widespread as even if the offence is punishable, it is not easy to prove for the police.
"When asked as to who put their stubble to fire, farmers often say that it is their contractors who are at fault or play dumb on the entire matter. They won't accept it but it is an open secret," a bystander near a burning field said. This was confirmed later when CNBC-TV18 asked a farmer about the burnt stubble on his field. "I don't know who did this. Till last night, everything was okay. Today, I saw that it has been burnt. Must be my enemies," he lamented.
Farmers inspect their field after stubble burning in Punjab
The farmers come up with excuses when confronted about stubble burning but it is also equally true that in the absence of no other feasible alternative, this offers them an easy way to kill pests, turn around their field quickly for the new winter crop and does not have any upfront cost.
"Everyone in our family burns crop waste. We burnt some part of our field yesterday. It is a cheaper option," a 13-year-old student in a village in Patiala district said with a smile. The school had organised rallies asking farmers to not burn stubble ahead of Diwali.
Last weekend, the air quality index in NCR touched remarkably toxic levels of 500-999, almost 15-20 times the safe range of 0-50. The government declared a public health emergency and schools have been ordered to be shut till Nov 5. Movement of transportation has also been hit with nearly 500 flights being hit with delays and 37 being diverted at the busiest airport of the country on Nov 3. Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba is also monitoring the situation on a daily basis since Nov 3.
The larger problem lies with the absence of coordination between the central and state government in their approach towards resolving this issue, insufficient active monitoring of the situation, the lax approach of authorities and lack of awareness about the alternatives, a group of farmers in Patiala said.
"The machines that are used as alternatives to burning of stubble break it down into smaller sizes which are then incorporated back into the soil which in turn improves the quality of the soil in the long term (in-situ) or are completely cut off from the soil and sent for industrial usage (ex-situ). We need greater awareness of the benefits of such machines. We also need to make these accessible and economically viable," a person associated with a Punjab-based think tank said.
A community-based approach may work for small farmers whereby a group can buy such machines, thus bringing down the cost and then these can be used by all the members of the community on a shared basis, the person added.
"We were experimenting with financial incentives model last year. For every acre of a field that a farmer did not burn stubble, we gave the farmer Rs 1,000. However, it only had a 40 percent success rate. In 60 percent cases, farmers took the money and also burnt the stubble," a person associated with Confederation of Indian Industry said.
A field is ploughed and ready for use after stubble burning in Punjab
Individual farmers and custom hiring centres are required to pay 100 percent cost upfront for procuring machines under the subsidy scheme. The subsidy benefit is subsequently transferred to the beneficiary account. This has been a deterrent for many. Government banking institutions like NABARD may be linked with these groups to provide credit linkages and reduce the financial burden on these farmer groups, CII said in a policy recommendation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August.
On Sunday, PM Modi made a strong appeal to business investors in Bangkok, saying that this is the best time to visit India and invest in India. On the same day, several citizens took to social media platform asking their friends and family to leave the national capital, albeit for a few days.
The introduction of Bharat Stage- VI fuel emission norms from April 2020 may help in reducing the pollution from vehicles but the evil outcome of annual stubble burning exercise needs some sustainable, economical and angelic solution.