Gandhiji, a lawyer, advocated defiance of laws enacted by colonial masters. He had hardly imagined senseless servility of Independent India’s adults to the politics of convenient opposition being played out today. He is said to have rejected fears of spreading law-breaking contagion in the independent India, confident in his belief that university students, young fertile minds, and citizenry would then exercise self-restraint, finding no room for anarchy or indiscipline that results from brazenly breaking the laws enacted by an elected government.
The fears he rejected are being fanned by the politics behind stubble-burning. Feudal mind-sets of our society persist to this day, with scant respect for law. Mob-mentality rules, notwithstanding cosmetic societal advancements. Continuing defiance of law and a silent, inactive law-maker are the results, not of Gandhiji’s yester-year calls for defiance against foreign rule, but of the invidious creep of lawlessness in the very fabric of India’s governance system. Implementation of laws stands as a pigmy before popularity contests and electoral trade-offs. Environment, public health, and moral hazards are fertilized to grow and spread as an off-shoot of this poisonous keeper, sorry creeper, in governance.
There is no dearth of laws, judicial rulings, and expert advice on environmental issues. ‘Polluter Pays’ is the slogan in currency. Economic development in harmony with environment is the dominant public discourse. But, the gap between theory and practice continues to widen. A deeper examination of farm practices leads to the irrefutable conclusion that actions/inactions of parties in power at the Centre and states are squarely responsible for incentivizing/ defending practices resulting in deteriorating environmental health.
Agriculture sector is no exception. Indiscriminate usage of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, uncontrolled flow irrigation, biases in selection of a few food crops for public procurement, etc. all result from hefty Central funding in the guise of incentivizing agricultural production and productivity. Parties in power in States, now seen pretending to represent the interests of farmers, on their part also offer huge free-bees like power, water supply, mechanized tools, etc., besides allowing uncontrolled exploitation of ground-water by ignoring extremely adverse ramifications of resulting farm practices.
Stubble-burning is one of such practice that draws occasional attention of some urban activists and “breaking news” leading to one-off judicial intervention, ritualistically annual in recurrence. Otherwise, it is hardly difficult to find the ways and means to un-root its causes and hold the real polluters accountable.
Paddy growers in core areas of stubble-burning are rarely cultivators; most are supervisors on their farm-lands, deploying machines and migrant workers. Rice production is their profitable commercial venture, with least risks, and guaranteed marketing support. Intermediaries/Integrators play their part in business transactions. The cumulative force of vested interests, coupled with greed to accumulate more regardless of its high environmental cost, begets support from dominant politicians across party lines to guarantee public procurements without any bother, even if the produce fails to meet quality norms. Public procurement agencies are pushed by governments to procure huge quantities, beyond projected requirements. Shortage of proper storage facilities leads to storage of food-grains in open, dilapidated godowns which soon turns unfit even for animal consumption. No magnifying glass is needed to see the ugly truth of malpractices in procurement and distribution chains, evident in yawning mismatches of reported “quantities” procured every season and storage capacities. Yet hardly any voice is raised; the stranglehold of vested interests in the system strongly grips all.
Farming community is largely change-resistant and risk averse. Pliant ruling class is coerced to strengthen the status quo that guarantees procurement of their so-called surplus and make food-grains available almost free-of-cost in the name of national food security. Paradoxically, a good number of farmers are seen offering their produce for procurement at rates below the minimum support price (MSP), as they receive rice and wheat at Rs. 1/- to Rs. 3/- per kg. under food security programmes.
MSP, despite being recommendatory, gets guaranteed only for rice and wheat in stubble-burning regions; not for other crops, intrinsically crushing the will of the farming community to diversify production. Surely, the guarantor of MSP is also a polluter in stubble-burning farms. Governments in states with prevalence of stubble-burning owe a much bigger culpability. Hardly surprising that in traditional rice-growing States, MSP for rice remains mostly on paper, as FCI and other public agencies readily achieve their procurement targets from stubble-burning states. Incidence of stubble-burning is hardly seen in states where rice is the main staple food.
It is not to discount the contribution of farmers indulging in stubble-burning in making our country self-sufficient in production of food-grains. Indeed, the lapses are of policy-makers and agricultural research organizations, which are rice and wheat centric. Successive central governments have failed in creating enabling technologies and eco-system for diversifying agriculture with greater emphasis on minor millets, oilseeds, pulses etc. Given a level-playing field in marketing infrastructure and procurements by public agencies and similar other incentives as for rice and wheat, farmers in large parts of the country may volunteer to diversify their production.
The Supreme Court of India, through a recent ruling constituted a one-man commission headed by its public-spirited retired judge, for monitoring actions on stubble-burning. Its work has been put on hold on the assurance of central government to enact a law to deal with stubble-burning. Laws hardly become instruments of changes if not enforced ruthlessly. Whether through judicial intervention or new law on stubble-burning and its rightful implementation, it is expected that its causes along with symptoms are examined deeply, and directions issued that have binding effect on governments for a durable solution to this menace. Some suggested provisions in the new law and apex court’s orders, implementation of which could be reviewed judicially to hold those at the helm of affairs accountable, are as follows:
- Reduce procurement of rice by public agencies to a bare minimum from stubble-burning producers. To incentivize their higher production and reduce storage and distribution operating costs, fix procurement targets based on food-habits in paddy-growing areas across States, such that only in the case of shortfall or inability on the part of a State in achieving its target, others States where rice is not consumed but produced as a cash crop are assigned additional quantity for procurement by public agencies. Paddy being a highly perishable commodity, storage infrastructure in rice-consuming States should be developed in a time-bound way. Stubble-burning will get automatically arrested as a result.
- Reduce incentives through free water and power for rice production in States which already benefit from controlled irrigation to a minimum. Such incentives should be offered for production of non-paddy crops (minor millets, pulses, oil seeds. etc.), along with marketing support through public agencies.
- “Polluter pays” principle should apply to State governments and their functionaries, besides intermediaries and public procurement agencies involved in the transactions, for their direct and indirect roles in stubble-burning. Exemplary penalties should be imposed on the large mechanized farms whose owners indulge in stubble-burning.
- Preventive penalties should be imposed on individuals and officials (elected or otherwise) of local bodies, particularly in urban areas for failure to dispose garbage and debris, including dried piles of residues from drains, which heavily contribute poisonous dust particles to stubble-burning haze.
- Ground-water exploitation should be regulated by law and allowed minimally for raising paddy crop. State governments and their functionaries should be penalized collectively as well as individually for failure in enforcing these legal provisions.
- The ministry of agriculture should examine the unintended consequences of technologies developed for the Green Revolution, which in rice-producing, stubble-burning states can hardly be called “green”.
(The author is a former civil servant).
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