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Bans can’t banish north India’s toxic air. It needs creative solutions and perseverance

The air crisis needs many creative solutions, including technology and citizen participation. SC order to pay farmers not to burn stubble is the first step.

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The Supreme Court has ordered that farmers should be paid for not burning stubble, rather than be fined for burning it. The state governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have to give Rs 100 per quintal within a week to small and marginal farmers who do not burn stubble.

The states could next be asked to repeal their groundwater preservation laws, as highlighted by the study ‘Tradeoffs Between Groundwater Conservation and Air Pollution From Agricultural Fires in Northwest India’, published in Nature Sustainability.

These laws effectively put the objective of saving water higher than the health of the people of northern India. The central government should provide more water to these states.

High costs of pollution

In the immediate context, paying farmers to find ways to pull out stubble may be one way forward. At the moment, the willingness to pay to reduce the pollution is high.

There are huge health costs of air pollution. Immediate costs such as asthma, respiratory problems, and spending on air purifiers, masks, medicines and visits to the doctor are visible. In addition, there are deeper ramifications that only unfold in time — the impact upon cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.

Further, there are economic costs. The electricity generated by each solar panel goes down as the polluted air obscures the sunlight. Plant yields, similarly, go down. Tourist revenues are reduced in the peak season for tourism in north India, winter.

This year, flights have been cancelled due to visibility issues. Schools were closed. Business was lost during ‘odd-even’ days in Delhi. These impacts add up to very large sums of money.

The ban culture

The first step in pollution regulation is to use the stick. We’d like to ban the emissions and direct punishment at the polluters. We come at this from the moral clarity of victims who are angry at perpetrators.

There are many sources of air pollution: Industrial pollution, crop stubble burning, garbage burning, vehicular pollution, road dust, construction dust and crackers. A wave of bans have come along, targeting all these.

The trouble is that the Indian state has low capacity. Punishments legislated by the state are often irrelevant. Taking the example of crop stubble burning — it is clear that the banning and fining solution is not working. From yagnas to waste decomposers, happy seeders to fining farmers for burning stubble — nothing seems to stop the farmers in Punjab and Haryana.

It is important to look beyond simple bans, not least because we lack the state capacity to ban things. We need to see that we are all in this together. The interests of the entire north India are interconnected in thinking about this problem.

Also read: Delhi’s toxic air killed over 30,000 in just three years, 33 on average died daily in 2016


Creative problem-solving

It is likely that multiple elements of the solution will need to come together. There is a need for creative problem solving, for inventing novel solutions, which can then go into a process of debate, discussion and criticism.

Some of the possibilities that could be useful are as follows.

Changing India’s food system: Indian agriculture is a terribly distorted sector. There is a direct link between mistakes of agriculture policies (free water, free power, subsidised inputs and rice procurement at artificial prices) and the problem of stubble burning. The long-term solution lies in changing the food and subsidy system for food, power, fuel and water, but it faces political difficulties.

Paying farmers to leave land fallow: Deeper reforms of the food system will take time. When we add up the costs of agriculture subsidies to the taxpayer, and the cost of stubble burning to the nation, it is likely that this rice is not worth growing. Perhaps the way forward, in the short run, is to pay farmers to leave land fallow from April to September. Food, water, power and input subsidies for this crop can be withdrawn. The money saved on subsidies can be used to pay farmers.

Using the carrot and not the stick: As argued by the Supreme Court, the way to curb crop burning may be to use the carrot and not the stick. Somasekhar Sundaresan has pointed to the use of cash payments rather than punishments in protecting snow leopards from angry villagers. A government paying out a reward instead of doling out punishment faces equally high implementation constraints. The implementation of the reward will require a new level of databases.

Using modern technology to identify the fires: Satellite imagery can identify the location of a fire. It is possible to have high resolution imagery every hour. The government should release these databases into the public domain in order to enable citizen initiatives.

Even more harmful than crop stubble burning is urban waste burning, and it is essential to rapidly identify these fires and initiate citizen mobilisation within one kilometre (where the maximal impact lies). With crop stubble burning, there is a need to link the location of the fire to the name of the person who tills the land.

Conditional cash transfers: A middle path between punishments and rewards is conditional cash transfers. Subsidy programmes such as Kisan Samman can be made conditional upon not burning stubble. The Bharatiya Kisan Union has claimed that 90 per cent of farmers have land holdings below two acres, and cannot afford to not burn stubble as it is the cheapest option.

This provides an opportunity to make cash transfers conditional. Satellite imagery datasets need to be connected to land title databases.

Citizen initiatives: What can citizens do? Based on satellite imagery and apps, volunteers can chase down fires and persuade or pay farmers to stop. Nudge economics, such as showing them videos of children unable to breathe in Delhi, can help make them aware of the deathly impact of their behaviour.

Philanthropic initiatives can spring up. Farmers can be linked to urban persons, who adopt farms and put down an annual donation as a reward for not lighting fires. Airlines, hotels, businesses and citizens who will gain from stopping stubble burning can participate.

Many engineering solutions are being proposed as well. Markets for the stubble, various innovative uses of paddy stubble, crop diversification such as growing maize and ethanol, subsidies for agricultural implements, and awareness campaigns all have a role to play.

The problem is complex, has no single solution, and will require sustained attention and effort.

The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.

Also read: Toxic air adds to India’s woes as economy goes from bad to worse


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  1. But it seems to me that al state and central governments are not working together to solve this problem. They are basically shifting ball into one another’s court. No body wants make farmers angry. It seems that SC can only force the governments to take the effective measures for the next year.

  2. One key point missed here is that pollution does not respect man-made artificial boundaries. The solutions sticking to state structure will not work. We see this even with for example kauvery water problem between Karnataka and TN

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