Indian govt on back foot as stubble burning worsens air pollution in the national capital

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  • Air quality levels in Delhi, the most polluted mega-city in the world, had already dropped to ‘poor’ on Monday and is expected to worsen.
  • Farmers continue to burn stubble with some in Punjab recently protesting against the lack of compensation for using alternatives to crop burning.
  • There seems to be a lack in coordinated action among governments.
Despite ample warnings, it appears that Indian authorities have again been unable to wield enough pressure or incentivise farmers sufficiently in Northern India to halt the practice of burning stubble. Studies have shown that this stubble burning contributes to at least half of the pollution and toxic haze problem in India’s capital region.
The air quality in Delhi and surrounding cities reach toxic levels every year in October and November as the temperature drops and the pollutants stay suspended as the wind slows down.

While the number of stubble burning sites seem lower than last year according to satellite data, that number might go up in the coming week. Air quality levels in Delhi had already dropped to ‘poor’ as of Monday, according to the Air Quality Index.

A combination of stubble burning in the Northern states, vehicle exhaust and construction dust contribute to toxic levels of pollution in Delhi, which is the most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.

Despite penalties and a ban in place by the National Green Tribunal on stubble burning, farmers in have continued to burn stubble. Some farmers in Punjab have also recently been protesting against the lack of compensation for using alternatives by posting videos of stubble burning online.

Insufficient compensation

In recent years, India’s central and state governments have attempted to introduce financial incentives and subsidies on the farm equipment needed to help farmers switch to cleaner methods of getting rid of harvest stubble instead of burning crop residue to clear farmlands for the next sowing season.

However, farmers contend that despite the subsidies these machines are still very expensive and the cost of these machines has shot up further ever since the government announced these subsidies. Instead, the farmers have demanded direct compensation of ₹200 ($2.71) per quintal of paddy harvested.

One farmer in Punjab told the Mint - “The number of machines that have been purchased on subsidy will not even cover 10% of Punjab’s paddy area... besides it costs farmers over ₹5,000 per acre for straw management by rented machines.”

Additionally, Punjab also imposes a fine of ₹2,500 per acre, which dwarfs in comparison to the cost of alternatives, farmers say.

“I will set fire to my farm to clear it. If need be, I will pay the fine because there is no other option,” a farmer in Punjab told News18.

Removing crop residue is also seen as a labour-intensive process in both Punjab and Haryana, both states have shifted to high mechanisation in recent years. With farm labour being either unavailable or too expensive, burning the stubble is seen as a cheaper option.

To be sure, efforts are also underway by various non-governmental and local organisations to create a market for the stubble for use in biofuels, for instance, but they will take time to catch on.

The governments also appear to be lacking in coordinated action to address the problem. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reportedly said that his government took up the issue with the other state governments but no “concrete action” had been taken by them.

Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has urged the central government to grant ₹100 per quintal as compensation to Punjab farmers, failing which he said it would be tough for the state to control stubble burning.

Delhi also plans to implement emergency measures in the coming weeks if the air quality worsens including a prohibition on burning of waste, curb on construction activity and the use of diesel generator sets in the city.
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