Fire-fighting seems to be the only mode that the authorities in India adopt in their response to grave problems. So, in order to combat rising air pollution because of crop burning in Punjab and Haryana, an emergency measure has been put in place. Called the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), it stipulates several steps like stopping garbage burning in landfills and other places and enforcing all pollution control regulations in brick kilns and industries.
Our political masters also wake up to the big problem of stubble burning in northern states only in October, when only emergency plans could be executed. For years, they have ignored this multidimensional problem. The last two or three months of the calendar year, once the most pleasurable in Delhi and the surrounding areas, become a hellish experience for the millions of people. Combined with vehicular pollution, industrial emissions, and ambient dust, the entire region becomes a gas chamber. Evidently, the wellbeing of millions of people in north India is neither a concern for politicians nor for the farmers who burn stubble.
Crop burning happens because farmers can’t afford the alternatives to it. So, the real solution is augmentation of their revenues, which the Narendra Modi government says it is committed to. It says that it wants to double their incomes by 2022. But there is a gulf between its profession and the policies it promotes. The need of the hour is structural change—opening up the sector, phasing out government controls, and allowing farmers to do whatever they want to do to earn higher profits.
But politicians of all parties instead persist with the policies and practices that have plagued the farm sector in the first place: free or cheap electricity, fertilizer subsidy, minimum support prices or MSPs, cheaper credit (and frequent loan waivers), exemption from paying income tax, and so on. What is needed is liberalization in the sector; what politicians offer are sops, which necessitate more controls.
It is not that only politicians favor status quo; the representatives of farmers are no champions of change. For instance, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), which organized a stir recently that choked the national capital region, seldom talks about opening up the sector. It generally seeks more sops. After a meeting with Union Minister of State for Agriculture Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, BKU general secretary Yudhvir Singh said that “the government is silent on our demand for loan waiver, saying that the states had to take a decision at their level. Also, it said that fixation of MSP based on ‘C2’ input factor as per the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations will be done in future.”
It is clear that farmers’ leaders remain obsessed with the existing statist policies. Against this backdrop, there doesn’t seem to be any end to neither rural distress nor, which is its natural corollary, crop burning. As I wrote in The Sunday Guardian (October 13, https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/as-we-await-the-inferno): “In a nutshell, crop burning is the most perceptible symptom of deep-rooted farm crisis. It cannot be dealt with subsidies worth a few thousand crores, committees to look into the matter, and other ad hoc measures. The need of the hour is comprehensive reforms in the sector, so that the farmer gets freedom to carry out his activities to earn higher revenues. Those who matter, however, are willing to grant him only one freedom: to burn stubble.”
Measures like GRAP are, at best, ad hoc. A PTI report (October 14) listed some of them: “If the air quality lies in moderate to poor category, measures like stopping garbage burning in landfills and other places, and enforcing all pollution control regulations in brick kilns and industries would be implemented, an official said. If the air quality falls in the very poor category, additional measures of stopping use of diesel generator sets, enhancing parking fees three-four times and increasing frequency of metro and buses would be implemented, he added.”
If the air quality falls in the severe category, additional measures would be implemented of increasing frequency of mechanized cleaning of roads, sprinkling of water on roads and identifying road stretches with high dust generation, the report added.
If the air quality falls to severe plus emergency category, then measures like stopping entry of trucks into Delhi (except essential commodities), stopping construction activities and appointment of task force to take decision on any additional steps, including shutting of schools, are implemented.
One hopes that these steps are implemented efficiently and cause minimal disruptions, but these will remain palliatives; the cure lies somewhere else: in reforms in agriculture.