The Rice of the Matter

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Why in News?

  • Last week, the Supreme Court strongly rebuked Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and UP as the air quality index (AQI) for PM 2.5 exceeded 400 in Delhi.
  • The bench directed these states to stop stubble burning in paddy fields forthwith by any means, and then find long-term solutions. 

SC’s Observations and Directions Amid Deteriorating Air Quality in NCR

  • As a long-term measure, the SC agreed with the submission made by the Punjab government to take steps to incentivise farmers to switch over from paddy cultivation to alternate traditional crops like millets by offering them the minimum support price (MSP).
  • The court sought information from the neighbouring States of Delhi on the implementation of the colour-code sticker scheme to identify polluting vehicles based on their fuel type.
  • The court made the local Station House Officers and the Chief Secretaries of the States concerned responsible for ensuring that no further instances of crop burning occurs.

Why Containing Farm Fires is Critical?

  • Biomass Burning is the Biggest Polluter
    • As per the Decision Support System for air quality management in Delhi, biomass burning (mainly stubble burning) accounted for 37.85 per cent of pollution recently.
    • Delhi’s transport accounted for just 12.67 per cent, and Delhi’s construction and dust accounted for less than 3 per cent.
    • Clearly, the most urgent action needed is controlling stubble burning in neighbouring states, notably Punjab.
  • Health Consequences
    • The Air Quality Life Index report from the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute suggests that people in Delhi could lose 11.9 years of their lives due to pollution.
    • It is now known that long-term exposure to air pollution can raise blood pressure (hypertension), lead to cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and peripheral vascular disease, etc.
    • Inflammation stoked by air pollution can damage many organs and lower immunity to infections. PM 2.5 has been found in maternal placenta and foetal brains.
  • Regional Implications
    • The problem of stubble burning and its consequences on air quality and health is not confined to Delhi alone but has broader regional implications.
    • This requires the need for a coordinated effort beyond individual cities or states to address the root causes of air pollution.

Ways to Stop Stubble Burning

  • Mechanised Harvesting Techniques
    • Encouraging and incentivising the adoption of mechanized harvesting techniques can be an effective way to reduce stubble burning.
    • Modern harvesting machines can cut and collect the crop residue, leaving the field clean and eliminating the need for manual clearing through burning.
  • By Promoting Alternative Uses of Stubble: Expanding and promoting new alternative uses could provide farmers with economically viable options for managing crop residues without resorting to burning.
  • Crop Diversification
    • The suggestion to drastically reduce the area under paddy in the Punjab-Haryana belt and the SC's observation that paddy may not be a suitable crop for the region point to the importance of crop diversification.
    • Encouraging farmers to cultivate crops that are better suited to the agro-climatic conditions of the region can help reduce the dependency on paddy and subsequently mitigate stubble burning.
  • Policy and Regulatory Measures
    • The SC's acknowledgment of the unsuitability of paddy for the region emphasises the role of policy and regulations.
    • Implementing and enforcing regulations that discourage or penalise stubble burning, while also promoting sustainable agricultural practices, can be instrumental in addressing the problem.
  • Public Awareness and Farmer Education
    • Increasing awareness among farmers about the environmental and health consequences of stubble burning, along with providing education on alternative practices and technologies, is crucial.
    • Farmers need to be informed about the available options and the long-term benefits of sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Financial Incentives and Support
    • Offering financial incentives and support for farmers who adopt eco-friendly practices and invest in modern equipment can encourage a more widespread transition away from stubble burning.
    • Government subsidies, grants, and other forms of financial assistance can play a significant role in this regard.

Environmental and Economic Aspects of Paddy Cultivation in Punjab

  • Unaccounted Greenhouse Gas Emissions
    • The study estimates that paddy cultivation in Punjab results in the emission of at least 5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare.
    • The environmental harm caused by paddy cultivation, including the unaccounted GHG emissions, is not immediately apparent but poses a serious threat and is referred to as a silent killer.
  • Subsidies and Economic Incentives
    • Substantial subsidies are provided to Punjab farmers engaged in paddy cultivation.
    • These subsidies, which include free power, highly subsidized urea, and other chemical fertilizers, amount to nearly Rs 30,000 per hectare.
  • Dependency on Paddy Due to Subsidies
    • This significant financial support constitutes approximately one-third of the profits derived from paddy cultivation.
    • This economic incentive plays a crucial role in encouraging farmers to continue paddy cultivation despite its environmental impact.
    • This highlights that the economic benefits derived from the subsidies outweigh the environmental concerns, creating a financial dependency on paddy cultivation.

How to Encourage Farmers in the Punjab-Haryana Belt to Transition Away from Paddy Cultivation?

  • Subsidy for Crop Diversification
    • The government should give a subsidy of say Rs 25,000/ha to farmers switching from paddy to pulses, oilseeds, and millets, or even maize.
    • This will help create a crop-neutral incentive structure and will not cost the government as it will save that subsidy from paddy cultivation.
  • Private Sector Incentives for Ethanol Production
    • The government should incentivise the private sector to set up ethanol plants based on maize, starting from Sangrur, where water table depletion needs to be arrested as soon as possible.
    • This will help create a market for ethanol blending with fossil fuels, and help in lowering air pollution from vehicular traffic. 
  • Reduced Paddy Procurement
    • State agencies should reduce paddy procurement from those farmers burning stubble, and in those blocks where the water table is depleting fast.
    • FCI should make it clear that they will not pay more than 3 per cent on top of MSP for any mandi fee and commissions for arhatias (middlemen). This should be uniform across states.
  • High-Level Government Engagement
    • PM needs to sit down with chief ministers of the states adjoining Delhi and offer a package to move towards more nutritious crops, millets, oilseeds, and pulses by assuring a procurement of these at MSP.
    • There is a need of all these crops that are more nutritious, and more nature-friendly.

Conclusion

  • It is crucial to raise awareness that air pollution is evolving into a nationwide issue in India, transcending individual states.
  • Therefore, there is a pressing need for a concerted national effort to address this problem.
  • Citizens can only hope that policymakers in Delhi and neighbouring states will rise to the challenge and prevent fatalities due to air pollution.

Q1) What are some alternatives to crop burning?

Instead of burning the stubble, it can be used in different ways like cattle feed, compost manure, roofing in rural areas, biomass energy, mushroom cultivation, packing materials, fuel, paper, bio-ethanol and industrial production, etc.

Q2) Which gases are released by stubble burning?

Stubble burning is a significant source of carbon dioxide (CO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and hydrocarbons (HC). 


Source: The Indian Express