Crop burning has become a problem - both for Delhi and the farmers further north. | Image credit:

Stubble Burning and Air Pollution: Punjab Experts Speak

“It’s very easy to criticise the farmer, but if anybody does the analysis of what the farmer has put up with since the 60s, we will find that any farmer who can be called prosperous, that farmer is committing suicide.” This was the opening statement of Mr Suresh Kumar, Chief Principal Secretary to Punjab’s Chief Minister, at a session in Chandigarh to discuss the conundrum of stubble burning and air pollution.

Delhi’s apocalyptic air pollution is a complex problem caused due to a range of local and regional sources like vehicle emissions, waste burning, construction dust, diesel gensets, industrial emissions, thermal power plants and biomass burning. While studies show that approx 60% of the pollution is local, regional sources like industrial emissions and stubble burning contribute to almost 40% of the pollution cocktail in the national capital.

While each source needs an independent policy and implementation framework for control measures, stubble burning has become the soft target for political blame game since the last two years. The farmer has been the easy victim. But while Delhi is reeling with pollution, Punjab is suffering from the cancer ‘epidemic’. The farmers are in dire need of credible policy options.

At the same session in Chandigarh, agricultural trade policy expert, Devinder Sharma said, “(the) Punjab farmer is overloaded with machines which keep increasing his loans. And machines which are of use only for a month in the entire year.” Mr Sharma equated every disaster to an economic and business opportunity. He said, “The farmer should be given his economic value. He knows the solutions best.”

With the short window between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat, burning the leftover stubble is usually the fastest and most cost-effective method for the farmers, as there is extreme production pressure on them. Traditionally the farmers in Punjab cultivated wheat and maize. But with the government proposition for crop diversification, bringing in water-intensive crops like paddy, sugarcane, the production targets have remained same, not keeping in mind, reduced crop area therefore reduced production.

“The problem is that policy is being made by people sitting in Delhi with no understanding of ground knowledge,” said Balvinder Sidhu, Agriculture Commissioner, Govt of Punjab. While Bharat Kisan Union’s Balbir Singh Rajewal lashed out saying no one is blaming the industry and soft drink manufacturers who use 1 crore litre of water every day for soft drinks. It is simple to blame the farmer. The farmer is too vulnerable and does not have risk-bearing capacity. The government policies are not in sync with ground realities.

Although pollution is considered Delhi’s problem by most of Punjab, Dr Ravindra Khaiwal from PGIMER Chandigarh revealed that the air quality index remains under 100 through most of the year in Chandigarh. Except during crop burning season when levels are seen above 200. Clearly pointing that Delhi is not the only one breathing heavy. As part of his latest research, Dr Khaiwal also shared that the farmer is the first victim of stubble burning. The chemicals and pesticides responsible for Punjab’s cancer problem, are also leftover on the stubble which is set on fire. When burnt, these chemicals also go up in the air further spreading.

While the problem is complex and there’s no easy solution, all experts agree that solutions lie with the farmers. In Suresh Kumar’s words, “Solutions are not in labs or with scientists and policymakers, but if you sit with farmers in the fields. Solutions are with them.”

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