It’s very easy for the high-orders — government, lawmakers, judiciary, and media — to pronounce quick-fixes for air pollution in Delhi.
But what’s more important is the will to study the issue in detail and act with a sense of informed rationality.
The air quality in the national capital and a large part of north India goes from bad to worse at the onset of winter.
This year it reached alarming levels with smog engulfing the city and neighbouring areas for days, forcing the government to shut down schools, making people lock themselves up in their rooms with their air purifier running round-the-clock or move out of the city to their hometowns.
This same story has been playing out in Delhi for the past few years now. Face mask is the new viral fever, signalling the arrival of winter. Like the good Indians that we are, we start digging the well when the house is already on fire.
For months preceding the winters, everyone — from citizens to government to media to judiciary — relax and do nothing. Outrage starts when no measure can help alleviate the problem because the issue is as complex as it comes and quick-fixes won’t do.
The outrage industry looks for a new scapegoat every year. Banning firecrackers hasn’t helped. Odd-even scheme for cars has achieved squat.
This year, we are finally focussing more on stubble burning, thankfully, which contributed as high as 46 per cent to Delhi's pollution at its peak (last Friday).
The issue of stubble burning is itself so complicated that it would take a lot of work on everyone’s part to resolve the crisis.
Frankly, people are more in a hurry to assign blame and reacting rather than understanding the complexity of the issue.
Such behaviour gets reflected in headlines chasing authorities seeking quick public approval, which makes matters worse.
Even the highest court in the country has waded into this without giving itself time to get a handle on all the nuances.
It has issued diktats as if waving its magical wand of judicial fiat will be enough to make all complexities disappear.
What would help then? Forget solutions for a moment and simply focus on understanding the various ground realities that make this issue so difficult to resolve.
Before jumping to conclusions, a realisation must set in that there is no silver bullet for stopping stubble burning.
For starters, Punjab and Haryana are clubbed together by the chattering classes while throwing blame. When smog made life hell in Delhi last week, most of the paddy crop was still standing in Haryana. How could they have then burnt the paddy? As the fire map till late October showed, Punjab alone was the culprit.
In any case, Haryana burns 1.34 million tonnes of paddy straw compared to Punjab’s 10 million tonne (2018).
Of course, it doesn’t mean that Haryana farmers burning stubble isn’t a problem. But can we at least outrage after getting the facts straight?
Haryana farmers will also burn stubble after they have harvested their crops, which has started in full swing this week. But it won’t have the same impact on Delhi’s air as Punjab fires had, not only because it burns less stubble, but also because of the wind factor.
Winds were stationary a week back when Punjab’s farms were on fire. Now, not so much.
This is the reason why on the day when maximum fires were recorded in Punjab, Delhi’s air quality actually improved!
So, wind movement is much more crucial in the scheme of things.
Recently some public commentators have started blaming groundwater conservation laws passed by Punjab and Haryana a decade ago as the reason behind Delhi’s poor air quality in late October-early November.
Quoting a research study, they argue that before 2009, when the acts were passed, most of the farmers used to sow paddy in June itself, which has now reduced to less than half that number.
But the fact is the notified date in Haryana’s 2009 Act for sowing paddy nursery is 15 May and plantation for the crop is 15 June.
For Punjab, it’s the same which the state government changes from time to time.
For instance, in 2018, the date prescribed was 15 June and in 2019, it was 10 June.
In any case, farmers in Haryana and Punjab defy these diktats with impunity and the state doesn’t have the capacity or wherewithal to implement such deadlines.
And farmers in Haryana have always grown paddy little late than those in Punjab because of less groundwater availability.
That’s why they delay it till the monsoon rains arrive and there is water stagnation which is ideal for growing paddy.
More importantly, growing paddy in early June and before that is not feasible at all as the weather is too hot and stagnant hot water will destroy the paddy crop.
So those saying that if the Acts were not in place, farmers could be harvesting in late September or early October, aren’t being practical.
Harvesting will only happen in late October, give or take a week.
Some years it may happen that winds will be stationary when farmers are burning the residue but let’s not blame the Acts for this.
We have to also keep in mind that monsoons are getting delayed in North India constantly and winters are setting in later than they used to a decade ago.
Scientists can play a crucial role in this regard if they come out with new seed varieties which reduce the paddy crop duration by a couple of weeks without much change in the yield.
It is important that we don’t resort to superficial solutions in a hurry. This is what the judiciary seems to be doing by directing the states to give Rs 100 per quintal of paddy straw to farmers to avoid burning crop residue.
Both Haryana and Punjab produced over 28 million tonnes of paddy straw last year (we aren’t even accounting for wheat straw).
Out of this, only 11 million tonnes was burnt.
If 60 per cent paddy is being managed, why can’t we do the same for the rest 40 per cent?
We can if we don’t rush this through. Giving every farmer an MSP for paddy straw or giving them Rs 100 per quintal (which will amount to Rs 2800 crore for 28 million tonnes of paddy straw) is wasteful expenditure.
If we go to South and central Haryana farms, which fall under the National Capital Region (NCR), farmers have completely stopped burning crop residue because they can get Rs 2,000 - Rs 2,500 per acre from the market itself.
That is equal to the half the amount of their harvesting cost. This residue is collected and supplied to the dairy industry, which is used in cattle feed.
In Punjab, enterprising farmers are using happy seeder machines which sow the wheat seeds and plough the crop residue back in the field, which is highly beneficial for the soil. It’s not possible for the governments to supply these costly machines to all the farmers but it can certainly improve the functioning of Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs) and make the machines available in each district.
There are various other aspects. Some are suggesting moving away from paddy completely to basmati, which leaves little residue, but basmati can’t be grown everywhere otherwise farmers would take it up.
It sells at much higher a price, but there is a solid reason why they can’t grow it.
Some are arguing that farmers get free power and free water and still they are causing pollution and hence they must be fined heavily.
This is one of those non-solutions which they know the state can’t possibly implement if farmers defy the orders en masse.
Additionally, farmers in Haryana still rely on diesel to run tube wells rather than state supplied power.
The state’s regulations are such that tens of thousands of farmers are standing in line to get approval for power connections to their farms but they are pending for years.
Haryana is considered one of the best irrigated states but the truth is canal water supply is erratic.
The reason for highlighting this here is that rather than managing stubble, focus should be on shifting farmers away from paddy in Punjab and especially Haryana, which is more water starved.
The problem is the same for Western Uttar Pradesh where water guzzling sugarcane crop needs to be discouraged with equal ferocity.
Sadly, agriculture doesn’t receive much attention even in media beyond done-to-death tropes like ‘farm distress’ which only gives reason for politicians to launch populist schemes which end up achieving nothing.
Rather, what is needed is more investment in technology, better ways to make it available to farmers and above all, promoting efficient water management.
There is no silver bullet. We need a 15-year comprehensive agriculture policy a la the education one, but with one caveat: it must be implemented too.