The burning of crop stubble is a problem that comes back to haunt Punjab and Haryana every year. The bearing it has on pollution levels in Delhi has made the Supreme Court seek a status report from the Ministry of Environment on the recommendations of a task force to prevent straw burning. On Sunday night, the air quality in Delhi was categorised as ‘very poor’. While the AAP government there prepares to implement the odd-even scheme from November 4 to 15, what is worrying is that the problem has started early. This is mainly because the sowing of paddy began early this year, on June 13, leading to early harvesting and the resultant early burning of crop residue. Also, there is a narrow time period for clearing the field of the straw so that wheat can be sown — about three weeks — and farmers prefer the easy way out — of burning the stubble, despite deterrents like fines, lodging of criminal cases and seizure of land records. Employing manpower to remove the stubble is difficult because with the growing mechanisation of agriculture and implementation of schemes like MGNREGA, migration of work force to the northern states has reduced. Also, implements to clear the straw come at a cost.
The NGT had in 2015 made burning of crop residue a crime. But there is no easy solution. Farmers demand cash subsidy to plough stubble back into the fields or use mechanised means to lift it, and also believe that pushing the residue back into the soil may increase chances of a pest attack.
The paddy-wheat cycle is an offshoot of the Green Revolution that changed the prevalent cropping pattern of maize, millet, pulses and oilseeds. The MSP encouraged paddy cultivation, increasing the area under it. The ICAR and agricultural universities promote awareness campaigns, setting up centres for hiring implements to manage crop residue and using alternatives like extraction of bio-fuel from straw. But with farmers forming a potent political pressure group, governments are wary of tackling the problem.