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Delhi’s air pollution masks a class war that nobody is willing to talk about

Patakha over Parali appears to be the choice that many Delhi residents have made in the war between bursting crackers and farmers burning stubble.

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There is a class angle to the war against pollution in Delhi. And nobody is ready to talk about it. It is being waged every day – in media, judiciary, law enforcement, pollution masks and in AQI data. Both the privileged and the under-privileged contribute to the pollution and suffer from it, but the debate is dominated by the former.

India’s mainstream media kicked off the debate this year by using government data that said 35 per cent of Delhi’s pollution is due to Punjab and Haryana farmers burning their straw stubble (the residue of rice plant called parali in local parlance). People in Delhi finally found the culprit responsible for the poor air quality in their city.

As is common with such identifications, culprits were caught and punished. Seventeen FIRs have been registered in Fatehabad district in Haryana alone as the number of FIRs in connection with stubble burning across Punjab and Haryana runs into hundreds. Haryana Police has formed special teams to identify farmers who pollute the air that residents of Delhi breathe. The Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal have also come down heavily on the farmers. In 2017, more than 1,000 farmers in Haryana were fined for burning the stubble, with the government saying it was only following the Supreme Court order. Punjab has threatened farmers that they won’t get land on lease to cultivate next year if they are caught burning the stubble.

The mighty state, the Supreme court, and nearly every environmental institutions have been up in arms against farmers reportedly responsible for the one-third of Delhi’s pollution (as per government data).

But what about the rest two-third of it?

Why don’t India’s courts and its governments (both central and states) show similar resoluteness in not only identifying but also penalising the culprits responsible for choking the lungs of Delhi’s residents rest of the year? Stubble burning can be blamed for the pollution in early winters. Is air pollution a seasonal problem in Delhi?

Who pollutes Delhi’s air when farmers in Punjab and Haryana are not burning the stubble?

Also read: EPCA declares health emergency in Delhi-NCR as air pollution gets worse

We know who else pollutes

The privileged gated communities of Delhi can arrange for private water (tankers of underground water), private electricity (back-up generators) and private security. They know how to exit the state and its inefficiencies. But air pollution is something that affects them, no matter how high their ivory towers go. That is why they have raised the pitch on the pollution debate, but in a way that absolves them and their own complicity. By entirely blaming the farmers from Punjab and Haryana.

It’s is not that we or the governments do not know the reason for pollution. If the government can tell us the exact share of stubble burning (35 per cent), then it must also know how much pollution Delhi’s residents cause by using their cars and air conditioners.

The Environment Pollution Control Authority has pointed out that vehicles contribute 40 per cent of the emission load in Delhi. Since all commercial vehicles in Delhi run on CNG, it’s private vehicles running on petrol and diesel, that are the main culprit for polluting Delhi’s air. Imagine the kind of outrage there will be if the government or the court passed an order mandating use of only CNG and LPG for cars on Delhi roads.

And what about firecrackers? Last year, 50,00,000 kilograms of firecrackers were burst on the day of Diwali in Delhi alone. Since there is a ban on sale of firecrackers in Delhi (except on the green ones especially developed by the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), the government acts against sellers and those bursting ‘illegal’ firecrackers. Interestingly, eco-friendly firecrackers are not completely green and they also pollute the air. This Diwali, 371 cases were registered with 166 people arrested and 3,500 kg of firecrackers seized, according to the Delhi Police.

But there is a stark difference between how the government acts against patakha and parali. The night of Diwali, the Air Quality Index (AQI) had hit 999, the maximum reading possible in the meter; Twitter was abuzz with the hashtag #CrackersWaliDiwali as people posted videos of themselves bursting firecrackers that are known to release more poisonous gases in the air. Not surprisingly, when media reports came out Wednesday about the rise in demand for pollution masks in Delhi, the blame once again went to the farmers, citing “government agencies”.

Also read: Kejriwal tells Punjab, Haryana ‘with folded hands’: Stop Delhi from becoming gas chamber

Farmers don’t burn stubble for fun

Unlike firecrackers, which are burst for entertainment, stubble burning is a necessity. There is a time-limit and urgency in the sowing pattern of crops in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. This pattern changed after the green revolution in the 1960s. Farmers in these regions sow crops three times a year. This pattern makes it a necessity for them to keep the land ready for the next season.

Punjab agriculture secretary Kahan Singh Pannu has explained this to ThePrint’s Chitleen K. Sethi: “Since there is a very small window of sowing the next Rabi crop (mainly wheat) after paddy harvest, farmers tend to burn the paddy straw in the fields to prepare them for the next crop.”

The government is taking various steps, including providing 50 per cent subsidy on Super Straw Management System (SMS) for combine harvester machines. This means that farmers have to spend money on machines so that Delhi can breathe easily. The farmers are being asked by the governments to pay for clean air to Delhi’s residents.

But Delhi’s residents are not sharing this burden. They are only compounding the problem.

Also read: Govt agencies can’t agree if Delhi’s air quality after Diwali was ‘severe’ or ‘very poor’

Delhiites burst firecrackers to celebrate

Diwali crackers are either about fun or some sort of status symbol for the people in Delhi. Firecrackers are a novelty in Indian culture, as “modern fireworks were only invented in the 1830s”. The first factory came up in present-day Kolkata sometime in the 19th century. Hence, the bursting of firecrackers cannot be said to be any ancient religious practice. There is no credible argument to defend the practice of bursting firecrackers in a city like Delhi where there’s a lot of hue and cry over pollution from stubble burning every year.

Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court has taken a middle path by not banning the sale and bursting of all firecrackers. The government has walked the extra mile and launched eco-friendly firecrackers. But the AQI reading on the night of Diwali and the day after were proof that Delhi’s residents flouted the Supreme Court ban on polluting firecrackers.

So, this is where we stand at the moment: Delhi’s wealthy residents can happily pollute the city’s air in an act of celebration without any consideration for others’ health (or their own), but they want the farmers to stop burning the stubble, which is a necessity for them and doesn’t come with an easy alternative. The state and all its apparatus – the government, the judiciary, the police – will go hard against the farmers while coming up with ineffective alternatives or a way out for people’s celebratory acts.

The way Delhi’s burden of air pollution is shared among societies today is like ancient India’s division of labourers, where some people existed only to consume and others to serve. Today, some hold the privilege to pollute Delhi’s air while others are forced to look for alternatives or face action.

The author is an adjunct professor, Dept of Mass Communications at Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication (MCNUJC), Bhopal. He is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal. 

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  1. I agree in parts. The farmers are to blame – that cannot be taken away. And, where is the class here? These are not poor, impoverished farmers that we are talking about. A significant number of them live in the developed world, a large proportion employ all its labour from the adjoining states and even the marginal and small farmers used mechanized threshing facilities – leaving a 12 inch stalk length of high-silicon parali which in burned. Opposed to what was a one inch stubble decades ago – we have compounded it by 12 times in the present era. So that’s the change.
    Yes – we should also ban firecrackers – I see no use for it.
    And – we should increase our fleet of battery cars – though I do know that it would just be offsetting the pollution till the time the recharging becomes viable through renewable sources – atleast it would offer Delhi a breather.

  2. Author: “But there is a stark difference between how the government acts against patakha and parali.”

    Eating meat in place of a plant-based diet increases pollution multiple times. Why does not the author explore this avenue?

  3. I believe this comment is the only farmers view on this subject. I would like Mr Shekar Gupta to take notice of this please.
    I was wondering that one basic averse decision by a ruling regime can affect an economic circle plus create unseen environmental problems.
    We started with Gau Raksha .The holy cow as per scriptures is the bos indicus ( the humped Zebu ).
    This animal due to low milk production is unviable as a unit of a commercial diary . As all agricultural operations are mechanical the Bullock is redundant.
    The science of breeding says that all breeds are needed to maintain genetic diversity. That doesn’t mean stray cattle but indicates making sustained efforts in preserving Native Dairy breeds and their genes.
    Now the comercial dairy units small and large were depending on Bos Tauraus or Exotic dairy blood to run successful dairy ventures due to commercially sustainable milk yields.
    These animals were in routine culled,traded and transported.
    By not having a clear policy vis a vis Gau Raksha we have clubbed both these breeds bringing an abrupt halt to the cattle trade and sale.
    Smaller ventures have shut down and demand of paddy straw has fallen .
    Interestingly this has lead to unemployment and burning of surplus straw and therefore more air pollution.
    Another after affect is shrinking rural Dairy business and higher milk rates
    Definitely the result of ill conceived political policies.
    Therefore the reasons of straw burning is surplus straw due to Farmers dropping dairy at the smaller scale in Villages leading to mechanical harvesting of Paddy. The aftereffect as mentioned is the collapse of small scale Dairy production and unemployment.
    The small gap between Paddy harvesting and Wheat Planting makes it financially unfeasible for the cash strapped farmer to remove the stubble leading to burning.
    Another problem is that our Buffer Stock of Grains has doubled due to discouraging Sugar cane and timber plantations there by increasing the Paddy Wheat rotation. This not only is soil detrimental but also leads to surplus grain procurement which locks National finances and causes Storage losses.
    Timber Woes are due to demonetization and the collapse of the construction industry causing a slump in demand and a fall in wood prices.
    Acreage under Social Forestry took a direct hit leading to the Farmers moving back to the undesirable Paddy Wheat cycle
    Sugarcane woes were mostly not paying farmers’ dues by the mills which were hit by burgeoning surplus sugar stocks.
    Fall in oil prices caused Sugar producing Countries to stop Ethanol Production for public transport and increase sugar production leading to World surpluses.
    This lead to a fall in sugarcane acreage and a rise in land under grain production.
    My conclusion about what I’ve put across are as below:
    1) Crop diversification is a must .A need to break out of the Paddy Wheat rotation which is besides being soil damaging but also leading to Environmental issues of the worst kind besides creating unmanageable surpluses.
    2) Straw a useful byproduct is being wasted whereas it can be used for the cardboard/paper industry and feeding cattle.
    3) Government must help by subsidizing this aspect of agriculture because National health is of prime importance.
    But readers the media has an urban bias and the Rural view point is rarely if ever sought.

  4. Delhites need to be accountable for the polluted air. Even with school closed the cars on the roads are causing crawling traffic and 3 rows of parking slowing traffic e.g. Karol bagh road . Definitely pollution will not decrease this way and by penalizing the farmers who are actually a minor contributor compared to Delhi itself, we will cause further inflation of food prices which are already troubling the lower middle class besides the poor.

  5. How do they solve this issue in other countries , where too similar dry stubble will be left after reaping? I have never heard of getting rid of it by burning in the USA or England.

  6. For the first time perhaps, the writer makes sense. If stubble burning is made illegal due to pollution concrrns, why cannot bursting crackers be made illegal for same reason?

  7. What a toilet article. Mr. Dilip Mandal’ s getting professorship is an indicator of level of Indian education system. Not conceptually he is wrong , but also factually. “This pattern changed after the green revolution in the 1960s. Farmers in these regions sow crops three times a year. This pattern makes it a necessity for them to keep the land ready for the next season.”
    In Punjab and Haryana farmers normally reap two crops a year only – paddy and wheat.
    Instead of finding a solution to the problem, Mr. Mandal is trying to divide the root cause into classes and instigating and putting one against other whereas in totality both are responsible in choking not only Delhi but entire North India. Just like diesel vehicles and generators which are bane for city – area like Delhi NCR , similarly paddy farming is bane for Punjab & Haryana as the climate and other agriculture factors are naturally alien for paddy cultivation. Both states are responsible in drawing and using extra water at the cost of HP and Delhi. 1kg rice production needs 5000 lit of water. Water table in both the states have come down to the alarming level, entire farmland has lost its fertility and turned cancerous due to excessive use of fertilisers. Ban on paddy farming in both the states is much more urgent than diesel vehicles ban in Delhi. Paddy farming must be encouraged in NE states due to abundance of water and suitable soil. The Print should do away with such buffoons and for the sake of prestige of the paper must engage subject specific experts only. Also pl don’t try to put one against other in the course of inventing an ism.

    • Comments by Alex are factually and scientifically correct. This articles fails miserably to describe the root of Parali burning. It is nothing to do with the green revolution but is due to paddy and 2 crop cycle . Also paddy is sown close to monsoon onset in Punjab, leaving smaller window for farmers to sow the next crop after paddy harvest. Don’t look for class argument – look for science and facts dear author.

    • I second your thoughts and arguments.
      Rice cultivation in Punjab, Haryana and western UP is the fundamental cause of many issues. Grave issues like cultivable land turning infertile, severe depletion of the water table, excessive consumption of river water by Punjab and Haryana (thereby denying HP and Delhi their rightful share) can all be traced to the practice of rice cultivation.
      Historically, rice was never cultivated in this region. It was only with the advent of the Green Revolution that farmers here took to rice cultivation as more profit could be made. Rice requires highly fertile land and an abundant supply of water and therefore is totally unsuitable for this region.
      It indeed speaks volumes about the state of Indian academia that people like Mr. Mandal are able to land professorships.

    • Can you refer to a good source to learn about cropping patterns in Punjab & Haryana? You allege there is a factual error so I would like to know what your source is.

  8. This dilip mandal is the biggest buffoon on the print. His thinking cannot go beyond
    his caste and anti-Indian culture bias.

    • YOU are the casteist buffoon! what sense does it make to drag caste of the author in the discussion? He has a perfectly valid point. Delhi must learn to celebrate Diwali without pollution and must also learn to give up excessive use of cars.
      (and no use trying to guess MY caste/religion/gender from my pseudo – you only need google it )

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