As November arrives, we suddenly become aware of the hazardous practice of stubble burning as the air quality index (AQI) of Delhi shoots to dangerous levels of 300 to 400. We worry about severe or hazardous pollution only when we can’t breathe in Delhi.
The Delhi government comes forth with its knee-jerk reaction, its typical way of dealing with any persistent problem. Close the schools; apply odd-even car driving on alternate days; stop construction activity on and off, etc. One of the major reasons for the high AQI is the burning of stubble by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. However, the government prefers to turn a blind eye to it, though the same Aam Aadmi Party heads the government in Delhi and Punjab.
Even city slicks know this much about rural India that after harvesting and cutting paddy, the farmer burns the remaining stubble. They can’t always fathom why. A bewildered city boy said to me, stubble has been there for centuries, why do farmers burn it now? Dear innocent, the practice started when mechanised cutting replaced manual cutting of paddy, soon after the advent of green revolution. With mechanised cutting, the stubble is cut so fine that it does not retain the juice or the texture to be suitable for fodder, as was the case with manual cutting. No longer of any use to the farmer, he burns the stubble to free the field for other uses.
The only solution, and indeed a productive one, is to turn the stubble into manure. One available solution now is to add the IARI-developed Pusa bio dispenser to the hard stubble. It’s a fungi-based liquid solution with the proclivity to soften it so that the resultant mix can be spread on the soil as manure. The problem is that we expect the farmers to buy the capsules. They are not willing to incur the expense, or undertake the laborious process of mixing it with the soil. They are not convinced of its efficacy or its cost-effectiveness. Random media promotion and government prodding have failed to motivate them.
The government routinely resorts to banning stubble burning. We know that legal bans are ineffective in our corruption-prone society. All that happens is that the authority in charge makes money from bribes while the law is trashed.
I feel the only way to deal with the burning issue is to treat it as a policy matter, similar to building roads and bridges or policing and defence. After all, the price is paid by the general public through compromised health and productivity.
The issue needs to be addressed through a multi-pronged and well-planned policy. One potential solution could involve purchasing stubble from farmers and storing it at nearby manned centres. The establishment of numerous collection and storage centres in close proximity to farms would be essential.
Technologies such as the Pusa dispenser or any new materials resulting from future research could then be employed to convert the stubble into manure. The final product could be sold back to farmers at a minimal rate.
It is not too much to ask for. After all, the government manages many projects dispersed over vast areas, such as elections.
Stubble management would be less widespread as it would cover only two states.
May we hope this would happen in the near future!
Mridula Garg is a Hindi writer and Sahitya Akademi award winner.