The Centre needs to carefully think through its decision to frame a law “on air quality management” for the National Capital Region. The imperative to clear the capital’s unhealthy haze is, of course, unquestionable. But experiences of the past 10 years show that the pollution — a cocktail of particulate matter from vehicles in NCR, industrial emissions, construction dust and fumes from crop-residue burning in Punjab and Haryana — defies easy solutions. The Graded Action Response Plan — a set of incremental measures put in place since 2017 to obviate an environmental emergency in the worst months of early winter — has yielded mixed results at best. With stubble burning proving an intractable problem and the Punjab and Delhi governments showing little inclination to join forces, the judiciary has been called to step in on more than one occasion. The decision to draft a new law comes in the wake of the latest intervention — the Supreme Court had asked the Centre’s response to a petition on curbs on crop-residue burning. On Monday, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta told the court that the draft will be ready by this week. It will need to be informed by the lessons of the past —especially the need to understand the problem in all its complexity.
Every year, when farmers in Punjab and Haryana harvest their paddy crop, they are left with a stubborn residue. Though there have been some attempts to convert this straw to fuel, it seems to have very little commercial value. Using manual labour to extract the stubble is both expensive and time-consuming. With very little time to prepare the field for the winter sowing, the farmer has found it expedient to set fire to the straw. Winds carry the fumes to Delhi, which has few natural avenues to flush out the toxins. The problem has become vexed because pollution control authorities have, by and large, framed it in an unfair binary — the choking Delhi resident versus the smoke-spewing farmer. On paper, residue burning is banned but it makes little practical sense to ask farmers to give up an established agricultural practice without giving them viable alternatives — subsidised machines that root out the stubble have found little traction because the farmers find very little use for devices they will use only once a year.
In the long run, farmers in Delhi’s neighbouring states will have to be weaned away from water-guzzling paddy. Till then, governments will need to reach out to them in multiple ways — incentives, awareness campaigns. Heavy-handed measures may end up doing more harm than good.
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