Last week, as the national capital recorded its worst reading in three years on the Air Quality Index, the Supreme Court pulled up the governments of Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi for their lack of concerted action against stubble burning. The Court’s two-judge bench warned Delhi’s Chief Secretary, Vijay Kumar Dev, that “we will not spare your top boss if you don’t take remedial action” against pollution. It also upbraided the chief secretaries of Punjab and Haryana for not being sensitive enough to the issue. Given that the Delhi and Punjab governments had resorted to blaming each other for the national capital’s pollution crisis, the court’s censure is timely. But the significance of the two-judge bench’s order of November 7 goes beyond its stern tone. It has asked the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to pay, within seven days, Rs 100 per quintal of paddy as an incentive to farmers who have not burnt stubble on their fields. The directive meets a longstanding demand of farmers’ organisations, but two questions remain: Do the states have the financial resources to bear the burden of the cash incentive? More importantly, are such incentives enough to wean farmers away from stubble burning?
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has said that “his government will implement the order”. This year, his government may not have to do much. More than 90 per cent of the non-Basmati paddy crop has been harvested. But the Punjab CM has given enough indications of the state’s limitations in providing cash incentives in the future. “The Centre will have to help the states, which are facing serious fiscal constraints. While the GST regime has stifled financial resources of all states, Punjab, in particular, is in dire straits,” he has said. The apex court has said that it will take a final call on the “aspect of finance” after “considering the detailed report to be submitted by the state governments and after hearing the other stakeholders, including the Centre”. It will have to chart a plan that takes into account the interests of the farmers as well as recognises the constraints of the states.
The Punjab and Haryana governments subsidise the Happy Seeder sowing machines, which obviate straw burning. Even so, the technology has not got the necessary traction because farmers do not want to invest in a machine that lies idle for most of the year. As in the case of most farm technologies in the country, the adoption of Happy Seeders will require changing mindsets. To persuade farmers to not set their fields on fires, state governments will need to reach out to them with educational programmes — not just financial incentives.