This season’s stubble-burning in north and north-western India, believed to be largely responsible for the heavy smog over Delhi, could have been avoided if the Centre and the states concerned had agreed on a formula to share the burden of a newly finalised financial incentive package to dissuade farmers from burning their crops, a senior official confirmed to The Indian Express.
The package worth more than Rs 3,000 crore was recommended by one of the task-forces set up under the CII-NITI Aayog Cleaner Air initiative earlier this year. In its report submitted in September, the task force had argued that farmers needed financial help in shifting to alternative ways of dealing with the agricultural waste. Among the easy alternatives suggested was the burning of waste in a brick-and-clay dome-like structure in the absence of oxygen to produce biochar or prali-char, a carbon-rich residue which has commercial value as soil nutrient.
It was realised that farmers needed to be provided money not just to build the brick-and-clay structures but also to pay for the labour needed to cut the waste and take it to the burning facility.
The proposal for the financial package was discussed with officials of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh at a video-conference organised by NITI Aayog, in which senior officers of the Central government also participated. After assessing the quantity of crop-burning in each of these states, the task force had calculated that farmers in Punjab alone required nearly Rs 1,500 crore this season. Farmers in other states together required a similar amount.
At the video-conference, state government officials asked the Centre to provide them this money. Punjab, in particular, is learnt to have said that it did not have the requisite funds for the financial package. The Centre, on the other hand, argued that there was no existing scheme or budget head under which money to prevent crop-burning could be transferred to the states. It is also said to have expressed apprehension that even if it did find some way to make a payment to these four states, there could be similar demands from other states as well. Accordingly, it urged the state governments to find funds from their own resources, and distribute the money quickly so that crop-burning could be avoided this season itself.
However, the issue of who would pay the money remained unresolved and it became apparent that the financial package could not be rolled out this season. In subsequent communications, the Centre and state governments agreed to continue the discussions to work out a mutually agreeable burden-sharing formula in time for the next season of crop-burning. It was realised that it would also give the governments adequate time to finalise the logistics of the exercise, like calculating the payment to be made to each farmer after assessing his or her land-holding and the quantity of agricultural waste generated. It was decided that the payments could be made through the direct benefits transfer route, directly into the bank accounts of farmers.
In the nearly year-long window, the governments also hope to sensitise the farmers to other financially rewarding alternatives of crop-burning, in which the agricultural waste could be put to more meaningful uses, like production of bio-CNG and bio-ethanol.
But all this, including sustainable long-term production of biochar or prali-char, requires the creation of suitable markets which will put a monetary value on agricultural waste, thus discouraging farmers from burning the stubble, which currently has zero value to them.