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Multi pronged strategy needed for Delhi’s air pollution

By DM Deshpande

Toxic air in Delhi has raised serious concerns all over the country. Now the Supreme Court has asked for payment of additional Rs 100 per ton of paddy to Punjab farmers to persuade them not to burn stubble in their fields. Policies are meant to be formulated by elected representatives and the bureaucracy is the executive to implement them. As per a study, moreover, Rs 200 per quintal of paddy is considered as more reasonable compensation.

  Farmers feel that they are being targeted unnecessarily. They point out the emission of vehicles, industries and even pollution caused by natural causes such as prolonged rains have contributed significantly to air pollution this time. They are justified to a large extent. Emissions by vehicles on Delhi roads are contributing to 41 per cent of the total air pollution. Numbers of vehicles in Delhi have more than doubled in the last four years alone.

  Delhi national capital region (NCR) has 3,182 industrial firms that account for 18.6 per cent of bad air quality. They emit gases and other pollutants in the air round the year. Now as a part of emergency plan all fuel and coal based industries are shut by government orders. Air in Delhi is always toxic. It is just that it comes to the fore during this time of the year. Ironically, geographical location of Delhi is also contributing to the misery. Just before the onset of winter, blowing of winds in Delhi stops and the pollutants accumulated in the air affect its quality.

  A lot has been written and said about stubble burning which is not actually the primary cause for air pollution. What it does is that it just aggravates the problem. As a practice, stubble burning is not new. Then why the hullaballoo about it now? Ironically a deeper study reveals mis-management of grain management in the country. A little bit of peep in to history is in order.

   Punjab and Haryana were never the rice bowl regions of India. They switched to rice cultivation in a big way after green revolution; 3.1 million hectares in Punjab and another 1.4 in Haryana. Every kg of rice in this region needs 5000 litres of water making it one of the water guzzling crops. Monsoon rains are hardly sufficient for this. So, the reliance on irrigation using ground water is huge. As power is either free or cheap, ground water has been mined relentlessly resulting in depletion of this precious resource to the extent of 33 cms every year!     

  In order to save water during peak summer season, government has ordained that no cultivation of rice be undertaken before June 15. This has pushed the harvest to end October or early November. That leaves little time for growing wheat in the rabi season. In any case manual labour is expensive and often not available. So farmers use harvest combines which leaves the stubble. And for the farmer, practical solution is to burn it.

   India is the largest exporter of rice in the world but aren’t we paying too big a price for it? While Basmati variety is mostly exported, it is the non-basmati rice which is bought by government for distribution through PDS. And the government is already carrying double the buffer stock of rice than what is essential. Hence, it makes eminent sense to shift non-basmati rice growing to regions in east which relatively gets higher amount of precipitation. How to induce this shift as farmers on their own may not do it. After all, they get subsidies in addition to assured purchase by government agencies.

  Political class across the spectrum has come to believe in luring voters with sops. Sensible thing to do is to offer similar concessions to farmers switching to say, growing corn. Afterall, Punjab was once known for makki ki roti and sarso ki saag. Today hardly any corn is grown in the state.  It has a market demand and consumed by multiple bodies. According to a study by Ashok Gulati no additional funds are required; presently too, subsidy cost-comprising mainly fertilizer and power- of rice is Rs 15,000 ha. Therefore, announcing a cash incentive of Rs.12,000 per ha can bring about desired results in a short time period. This amount could be split equally between the state and the centre.  So eminently doable, with what is required is just shuffling of cards.

Dire problems need dire solutions!

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.

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