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No respite from toxic air in sight as poll-bound states won’t penalise farm fires

Northern states that are heading for elections are unlikely to act against farm fires as the ruling party is unlikely to risk antagonising politically powerful farmers, who are already agitating against the new farm laws.

August 30, 2021 / 03:11 PM IST
Every year in October-November, agricultural fires become a major contributor to air pollution in north India.

Every year in October-November, agricultural fires become a major contributor to air pollution in north India.

Air pollution in northern India is again expected to surge ferociously in the winter months as farmers will resume burning crop residue after the harvest, without any punitive action against the hazardous activity.

Authorities are unlikely to punish the farmers who burn the crop residue that raises pollution to alarming levels in the Delhi-NCR region, because of upcoming elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, as well as the on-going agitation against the new farm laws.

Sample this: On August 25, the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh announced it would drop legal proceedings against farmers accused of burning crop waste, in a move seen as ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bid to placate farmers ahead of elections next year to the state assembly.

The UP government is also considering waiving off fines imposed on farmers, an influential voting bloc, for burning crop wastes.

The state goes to polls early next year, along with Punjab, where the practice of burning crop residue is rampant.

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A similar demand of withdrawing cases against farmers involved in stubble burning has emerged in Punjab from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), one of the Opposition parties in Punjab, the state going to polls in a few months.

Every year in October-November, agricultural fires become a major contributor to air pollution in north India, including the national capital region, triggering smog and extreme air quality situations.

In 2020, stubble burning in Punjab increased of 44.5 percent despite getting 46 percent of the total funds from the central government for checking crop farm fires, the Centre told the Supreme Court in February this year.

In the affidavit, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) said incidents of such fires in Punjab rose to 76,590 in 2020 from 52,991 a year ago, according to a PTI report. It said that in Haryana such events reduced by 25 percent to 5,000 from 6,652 over the same period.

Also, read: Air pollution worries resurface as crop burning by farmers continues unchecked

Further, the Centre has watered down the ordinance it promulgated last year that had penal provisions against farmers burning their fields.

As per clause 14 of the Commission on Air Quality Management for the Delhi NCR and surrounding areas passed in Parliament earlier this month, any violation of the provisions/orders under this Act are punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 1 crore or both, provided that these provisions shall not be applicable to any farmer for causing air pollution by stubble burning or mismanagement of agricultural residue.

The stubble-burning exception was introduced as part of negotiations between the Centre and the farmers’ unions over the agitation against the farm-reform laws.

Many farmers are already at odds with the BJP government at the centre over the laws, so the government would not want to annoy them any further, said a political observer.

Experts said more systemic solutions should be implemented at a scale including steps to ensure that all farmers have affordable access to equipment that help to mix the stubble with soil.

Also, read: Farmers lathi-charged by Police: Protests in Punjab, opposition attacks Khattar government

“We need to scale up options of recycling stubble for producing other products so that farmers can earn from stubble sale. Also, we have to change the cropping pattern to reduce acreage under paddy besides scaling up these solutions at a scale and with speed across the region,” Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at the Centre of Science and Environment, told MoneyControl.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana burn stubble as there is a short window between harvesting of summer-sown paddy and sowing of wheat. Growers cite the high cost of manual or mechanical management of straw as a reason behind their preference to burn stubble.

Many experts had linked the pollution in Delhi-NCR to the rice-wheat cropping system.

"Unless the rice-wheat cropping system changes, nothing else is going to help. The decisions have to be taken at a much larger scale to change the ecosystem and not just by regulation," Executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu told news agency IANS recently.
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