Delhi, our national capital, draws attention many-a-times for issues that sully its image worldwide. Career-activists and news-makers, particularly from electronic media, appear ever ready to indulge in scare-mongering without proper study of root causes and possible remedial measures, often without realizing that their display of ‘expertise’ on such issues risks causing unwarranted tragedies. Many physical and mental disorders are psychosomatic; repetitive hourly predictions of doom are enough to rock even a reasonably stable mind!
Stubble-burning practiced after harvest of paddy in Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh during the winters, cited among the principal reasons for pollution in Delhi, as if to pressurize governments for doling out subsidies. The hyper environmental consciousness that emerges after the harvest of paddy gets lost to oblivion with the showing of the Kharif crop!
Notwithstanding Corona being the flavor of the season, the issues related to agriculture including pollution on account of stubble burning are bound to resurrect sooner or later. A question seldom examined is why stubble-burning is rarely seen in traditional paddy-growing areas across India. Without getting digressed to search for reasons why stubble-burning appears to cause more suffering in the National Capital Region (NCR) than in areas where it happens, it is necessary to gauge the factors leading to stubble-burning and measures to arrest it.
Production of rice in large swathes of areas surrounding the NCR is largely a Green Revolution phenomenon after the mid-1960s. The Green Revolution, as we know, was intended to somehow achieve self-sufficiency in food grain production. It was not as important as to which areas the rice production came from. Research on developing high-yielding varieties was biased towards plain areas with higher potential for irrigated agriculture. The technology thus developed was not scale-neutral. More so, unlike in the traditional paddy-growing areas in eastern, southern, and central India where rice is the principal staple food, in Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh, rice is hardly consumed by the growers. Rice became a commercial cash crop in the newfound granary giving birth to the recurrent stubble burning menace.
While the country succeeded in achieving the desired objective, there were unintended consequences of large proportions that have persisted over time. Paddy cultivation is water-intensive and requires flooding for irrigation. The fertile plains of areas with rayati settlement system received high investment and heavy subsidies for developing irrigation infrastructure coupled with heavy exploitation of groundwater. Incentivized progressive farmers in these areas started producing paddy with assured market intervention by the State unmindful of their non-rice-consuming habits. Paddy became a commercial crop in Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh, and the direct beneficiaries were the big farmers.
High-yielding paddy developed by scientists and cultivated in these areas is mostly a dwarf variety, matched well for mechanized harvesting. With hardly any risk of cyclones and floods in the new-found granary for rice, productivity soared with more sunny days during Kharif season and controlled irrigation facilities. Mechanized harvesting left a higher stubble, which became a burden for farmers who had transformed their status from tillers to supervisors and did not like to bear the additional costs of clearing their fields for subsequent sowing during the Rabi season. The easy option was ‘stubble burning’, a polluting activity.
Eastern, southern and central India do not suffer from the menace of stubble-burning even when paddy is grown in both Kharif and Rabi seasons. The reasons are not difficult to glean. Rice not being their commercial crop, farmers did not necessarily go for dwarf varieties and excessive farm mechanization. Tall variety paddy not only withstands excessive rains and longer submergence in floodwaters but also gives better overall returns. After harvesting, paddy straw is used for animal feed, besides being the main construction material for thatched houses and roof cover to cool pucca houses. Indeed the returns from by-products almost equal the price of rice, thereby compensating for the higher costs of paddy cultivation. Productivity of paddy crop being low and risks on account of heavy rains and floods being higher in the traditional paddy-growing coastal and low-lying plains, farmers would stop growing this crop in case of earnings from by-products were not there.
Stubble-burning, in a nutshell, is an unintended consequence of the technology developed for the Green Revolution. The solution, thus, lies in the development of suitable varieties of seeds and harvesting technologies. Crop diversification and production practices are other aspects that require greater attention. At the same time, research scientists and industry leaders need to work harder to develop suitable seed varieties and inexpensive tools for farmers to prevent them from stubble-burning before cheaper Chinese products start flooding our market to handle the concerns of arm-chair environmental activists and newsmakers from the electronic media. Unregulated and excessive use of water, which is offered almost free of cost to farmers, is affecting the soil health by causing salinity, etc. Indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater, heavy usage of chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are causing serious health hazards leading to more deaths than from the Corona pandemic besides polluting and depleting the underground water.
Polluted ground/river water, as well as food crops including fruits and vegetables, pose much bigger dangers today than air pollution caused by stubble-burning. Administrators, researchers, and farmers need to open their eyes to the pollution building up under the ground and over it, which is the bigger silent killer. The exploitation of groundwater requires stringent regulations. Organic agriculture deserves to be encouraged by offering a higher support price for quality produce. The role of politicians is critically important– they need to understand that a healthy environment is important for a healthy popularity contest.
(Dr. Taradatt is a former civil servant)
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