From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Nothing much
Mains level : Delhi air pollution
The problem of air pollution in Delhi is safely pushed onto just one issue — stubble burning by farmers in Punjab.
- The simplification of the narrative to stubble burning may not stand scientific scrutiny.
- Satellite observations on stubble burning from 2002-17 reported that there has been an increase of 3% in aerosol loading attributable to crop residue burning during October and November every year.
- No data were presented on the impact of the burning of biomass in urban Delhi, coal-fired ovens and coal-based industries, coal-based power plants in the outskirts of Delhi, the increase in SUVs in the NCR and so forth.
- Farmers do it out of economic compulsion.
- An argument puts that Punjab now produces 25% more rice than what it did 15 years ago.
- Many others argue that the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act 2009 is the main culprit.
- Many believe that a generous distribution of direct seeders should make a difference.
Proposed three ways out
- Reduce paddy area/production
- Allow farmers to plant/transplant paddy before June
- Distribute “happy seeders”
Reduction in production of paddy
- Punjab was never a traditional rice cultivator.
- It took up rice cultivation in response to the national policy of food self-sufficiency.
- They achieved the highest productivity in the country and contributed maximum among all States to the central pool of rice procurement.
- The area went up from 2.6 million hectares in 2001 to 3 million hectares in 2017. Production went up from 9 million tonnes to 12.5 million tonnes.
- Punjab dug deeper to get groundwater and caused long-term damage to itself.
- Attempts at diversification did not take off because of the difference in net farm returns and market risks.
- A rice farmer earns about ₹57,000 per hectare whereas maize in a maize-wheat combination would set them back by about ₹15,000-17,000.
- An estimate by agricultural economist Ashok Gulati suggests ₹12,000 per hectare as an acceptable compensation.
- To reduce the area of common paddy by half a million hectares, and achieve a reduction of output of 2 million tonnes, the government has to support this change for the next five years.
- This half-a-million hectare should be in water-stressed blocks and can be encouraged to shift to maize or any other crop. Another one lakh hectare can shift to basmati production.
Falling water levels
- Punjab Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act 2009 -there exist strong arguments to prevent over-exploitation of groundwater, especially if farmers cultivate rice in April/May.
- Strong evidence is necessary to establish improvement in groundwater levels.
- If farmers are allowed to go back to the pre-2009 regime, it may deplete groundwater resources.
- The problem is one of free power to tube wells. This amount of about ₹6,000 crores can be shifted to a direct benefit transfer as has been suggested by policy experts.
- Direct seeders do help but have limitations.
- The seeder has to operate within about 4-5 days of the harvest.
- The effectiveness depends on the moisture present in the soil at the time of seeding. This requires a good understanding of soil conditions.
- Agronomic practices need to change with regard to the application of fertilizer and irrigation.
- These machines may be used only during the 15-day window in a whole year. They will remain idle for the remaining 350 days.
- Punjab may need about 20,000 of these machines if basmati areas and rice-potato areas are excluded from the calculation.
The problem is complex and needs a solution. But the solution should take into consideration the economic condition of farmers, the scientific options available and the willingness of the Central government to change policy and fund a major part of the expenditure. Blaming the farmers alone will not do.