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As Delhi Air gets ‘serious’, Punjab must stop appeasing errant farmers

Delhi’s dangerous air pollution levels have created a Catch-22 situation for the ruling AAP. With toxic smoke from farm fires blanketing the capital, will it prioritize the health and wellbeing of Delhi’s citizens, or appease the farmers of Punjab?

Farm fires raging in the green revolution states of Punjab and Haryana have made air quality in Delhi ‘serious’. The AAP has come to power in Punjab in the wake of the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21, and will be wary of cracking down on those who light fires to clear their fields of stubble before they hit the ground. to sow in winter.

But what about Delhi, where patients with respiratory diseases and eye infections crowd the hospitals? Studies say air pollution caused 54,000 premature deaths in 2020 alone. According to health professionals, asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), hypertension, cardiovascular disease and bladder cancer are some of the long-term effects of exposure to bad air.

Several studies have shown that a large proportion of children in Delhi have lung problems as a result of air pollution. Given that health and education are the AAP’s flagship programs, you might imagine that clean air would be a priority.

The credibility of the AAP in tackling this “burning” problem is questionable. It had accused the Punjab government, then assisted by Congress, of suffocating Delhi by failing to prevent farm fires. But during the farmers’ agitation, it supported all of the protesters’ demands, including decriminalizing stubble burning. The Center also accepted this requirement. One year ago, the then CM of Punjab, Charanjit Singh Channi, quashed all stubble burning cases against farmers.

Now that AAP is in power, the shoe is on the other side. Despite a nationwide awareness campaign and repeated appeals to farmers, it has failed to contain the fires on the farm. The claim by the chief minister of Punjab, Bhagwant Singh Mann, that he had taken strong initiatives to curb the practice has proved hollow.

The number of farm fires through October 31 was 16,004, compared to 13,124 last year. According to news reports, Punjab registered 2,131 farm fires on October 31 alone. The BJP and Congress, both in opposition in Punjab, have accused AAP supremo and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal of fiddling while Punjab burns.

The farmers demand monetary compensation in exchange for the fact that they don’t match their fields, and are not deterred by fines and red lists (which prevent the farmer from taking out loans or mortgages on his fields). Farmers’ unions have already started protesting such ‘red entries’ in income registers. The ever-present threat of another peasant riot implies that no politician will advocate a tough approach.

To be fair, Mann is crippled by his state’s faltering economy and the political coercion of the AAP. The solutions are many and varied, but require extraordinary political will, because the politics of subsidies is at the heart of the problem.

Farmers in Punjab depend on groundwater because rice is a water-consuming crop. This, in turn, means that they rely on subsidized power to run their tubewells. The state’s long-standing power subsidy — a heavy burden on its finances — has become a sensitive political issue, and all attempts to rationalize it have been thwarted by the influential peasant lobby.

Crop diversification would be an ideal solution, but the energy subsidy encourages farmers to grow rice. However, they cannot handle the paddy straw, which is not suitable for animal feed and therefore has no value to them. The stubble of the combines left after the harvest should be cleared quickly, before rabi sowing (any delay reduces the yield). Farmers do it by burning, because the cost of a matchbox is much lower than labor or machinery.

Successive state governments have attempted to provide farmers with subsidized machinery and microbial cultures to remove or decompose straw, but neither has succeeded. Paddy straw has industrial applications, but few farmers have the resources to invest in balers that can pack the straw for sale.

It is difficult to meet the farmers’ demand for compensation given Punjab’s debt burden of Rs 2.58 lakh crore (the highest debt-to-GSDP ratio in the country). Debt services accounted for Rs 36,512 crore in 2021-22. As economist RS Ghuman recently noted, “The Punjab government is in a debt trap as the debt is being repaid by taking out additional loans.”

Paying farmers is in any case not a long-term solution. They should be encouraged to switch to crops that are less water and labour-intensive, and discouraged from growing rice. At the same time, the state must implement a viable straw management system. While the health of the NCR’s children is at stake, no political party has shown the courage to tackle the issue head-on.

Bhavdeep Kang is a freelance writer and author of ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’ and ‘Just Transferred: The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka’. She has been a journalist since 1986 and has written extensively on national politics. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.

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