The onset of winter is almost always accompanied by a deterioration of air quality in northern India. Delhi is engulfed by a thick blanket of smog which is a serious health hazard. The pollution is known to cause allergies, asthma and other respiratory problems. Much of the blame for the deteriorating air quality is put on the doors of farmers in two of India’s food bowl states, Punjab and Haryana, but agriculturists in Rajasthan and Haryana have also been incriminated for the problem. Farmers in these states prepare their fields for the winter crop between early October and mid-November. Most of them burn the stubble left over after harvesting the paddy. A Delhi High Court ruling of October 6 has come down on this practice. A bench of justices, B.D. Ahmed and Ashutosh Kumar has cautioned the chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh that they will be held responsible if the practice of crop stubble burning is not put to a stop.
If the past is anything to go by, executing the court’s directive is going to be a tall order. This is not the first time that orders to stop stubble burning have been issued. In November last year, the National Green Tribunal directed authorities in Delhi and its neighbouring states to stop this practice. Since the past three years, deputy commissioners in Punjab have been asking farmers to abstain from stubble burning. But their directives have had little effect. Authorities in Haryana have also issued similar directives and they too had no success. Farmers complain that they have very little recourse since the same patch of land has to be re-cultivated within 15-20 days. There are a few fledgling outfits that collect the straw from the fields at a price. But this is no easy business. For one, balers that reap out the 14-15 inch crop residue are expensive. They cost anything upwards of Rs 10 lakh. Secondly, there is not much of a market for this crop residue. Collecting the straw and using it for economic benefits is a challenge. In comparison, burning the crop residue hardly costs anything.
Farmers could change their ways if they find economic gains in disposing of the crop residue. Biomass plants could be possible buyers for this refuse, but there are very few such plants today. The stubble can also be used to make compost. Some agricultural scientists argue that stubble heaps can be used for mushroom cultivation. But all this requires long-term engagement with farmers. Meanwhile, if past experience is anything to go by, fiats are unlikely to be effective.