There was hope for the residents of a broad expanse of north India, who faced a public health emergency due to air pollution, a significant part of which was caused by smoke arising from the burning of crop stubble—stalks of paddy, mostly, left after the kharif harvest—in Haryana, Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh. On Monday, the Supreme Court slammed authorities for failing to take effective steps to stop the annual menace, and has summoned the chief secretaries of the three states to explain why it could not be stopped. It also ordered the suspension of all construction activity in the National Capital Region, imposed a ₹1 lakh fine on violators, and warned that all state officials—from the chief secretary to gram panchayat office-bearers—will be prosecuted for contempt of court if even a single incident of stubble-burning takes place. Taking serious note of the situation, the apex court said that people have been left to die. It also expressed reservations over the efficacy of local measures such as Delhi’s odd-even scheme, which aims to reduce exhaust fumes by keeping half of all private vehicles off the capital’s streets.
The court’s displeasure over the state of affairs should, hopefully, jolt the state administrations out of their slumber. The air quality index hit 1,000 in Delhi over the weekend, which is several times above safe limits. With hospitals reporting a sharp rise in the number of patients with breathing difficulties, the urgency to take remedial measures could not have been greater. Yet, given the sheer volume of farm fires this season, it may be unrealistic to expect immediate relief. Much damage has already been done. Also, while a scramble to comb the countryside to stamp out fires would help, state regimes have a record of going soft on farmers for reasons of political expedience. So far, stubble burners have shown woefully little interest in using machinery that clears farms smokelessly. Despite the subsidies on it, it’s too expensive even to rent, such farmers aver, let alone acquire. A court-ordered crackdown might push them towards modern methods, but, without voluntary compliance, this may not offer a lasting solution.
What we need is a comprehensive strategy that incentivizes farmers to not just adopt alternative means of clearing their fields, but also to diversify their crops. India’s agricultural procurement policies, focused on staple foodgrain, have resulted in these states’ farmers taking to rice cultivation in a big way—a crop that soaks up too much water and leaves the nuisance of a stubble. The country’s buffer stocks of rice are reported to be adequate, and hence it would make sense to nudge farmers in this belt to grow other crops. Price signals ought to do this job, ordinarily, but a sector with state-determined “support" pricing tends to display its own dynamics. Even so, this mechanism could be used to lower the region’s rice output and spur switchovers to options that are remunerative for cultivators and also easier on our lungs. We also need a relook at groundwater conservation laws in Punjab and Haryana, which push the paddy sowing season to late summer. This delay leaves too short a gap between the kharif harvest and the rabi season planting of wheat, which means farmers have to clear their land in a flaming hurry. A scorched farm approach is cheap, but dangerous for everybody else. Let’s hope we breathe easier in the years ahead.