Putting out farm fires | Business Standard Editorials–29.09.2017

The pernicious practice of burning crop residue, which has defied all attempts to curb it till now, may reduce noticeably in the approaching kharif harvesting season, thus saving north India, particularly Delhi, from turning into a virtual smoke chamber. This hope emanates from the changed perspective on this menace. Instead of treating it as a legally barred activity requiring penal action, it is now viewed aptly as an economic imperative for farmers needing a market-based solution. Given the urgency to plant the next crop as quickly as possible, farmers generally do not have time to let the previous crop’s residue to decompose in the field to turn into compost. Nor can they afford the labour cost of harvesting the stubble to clear the fields. Torching them in situ is the quickest and the cheapest way to get rid of them. Most farmers, therefore, prefer to defy the ban on burning and even pay the penalty, which is usually less than the removal cost.
About 35 million tonnes of crop waste is burnt in Punjab and Haryana alone, releasing enormous amounts of particulate matter, ash and environment and health injurious gases such as carbon monoxide. These contaminants contribute majorly to air pollution in north India, including the national capital region of Delhi, during early winter, which coincides with the kharif harvesting season. The Delhi High Court last week ordered Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, besides the Centre, to use satellites to monitor crop blazes and take remedial action. This has indeed been tried out in the past but without much success.
A better approach to deal with this issue – by rewarding farmers for not burning stalks – has been conceived by the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA). Even while insisting on field-level patrolling to spot incidents of fire, the environment regulator is trying to get bio-power producers and other waste utilising industries to purchase crop residue for use as supplementary feedstock. Luckily, the response from these companies is said to be fairly encouraging. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) as well as some private bio-energy producers have expressed their willingness to use crop leftovers. NTPC, significantly, seems ready even to have the straw harvested at its own cost and pay the farmers a token amount for the stuff collected from their fields.
Another noteworthy development that can obviate the need for crop burning is the use of new mechanical devices that sow the next crop without removing the remnants of the previous one. Some machines can gather the stubble and sow seeds in one go. Their use needs to be encouraged regardless of their high cost. This is possible by facilitating the emergence of a vibrant services sector to provide these types of equipment to farmers on rent or perform the field tasks on a custom-hiring basis. It is good that some states are offering 30 to 40 per cent subsidy on versatile machines such as happy seeders and rotavators. The Centre also needs to contribute to this effort by offering financial sops to farmers for not burning their fields. Besides, it should offer fiscal incentives to bio-power producers and farm machinery manufacturers to augment their production capacities. That would help protect not only the environment but also human health.

via Putting out farm fires | Business Standard Editorials

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