Much has seen done by many, from state and central governments to the Supreme Court, activists and the National Green Tribunal to address the menace of North India’s winter smog. Nothing has worked.
It is like a disease that only gets worse with treatment. This year’s air emergency is already being called the worst ever recorded. And this when we had a fraction of usual Diwali fireworks burnt and the peripheral highways are reducing tens of thousands of buses and trucks on Delhi’s roads each day.
Why does this happen? This happens when you are trying to treat the symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. That is why every past effort to solve North India’s smog problem has failed.
Every year for about a month we have this problem and a number of actions kick in including banning construction, shutting brick kilns, banning fire-crackers, shutting industries. But nothing actually gets solved, because this is like popping a pain-killer to treat a deadly tumour. We are deluding ourselves.
So what is the root cause that has brought us to this problem?
Think four things: Water, Power, Compulsion, STUPIDITY.
All of these add up together. And the result is farmers in Punjab and Haryana growing too much rice. This rice is not only grown in surplus for this region, it also adds to the mounting surplus of the country. This forces the government to export a lot of rice with subsidies.
Since rice is a water-intensive crop, export of rice essentially means that we are exporting a lot of water overseas. To produce one tonne of rice, at least 70,000 tonnes of water is ‘exported’. Effectively, if India exports 12 million tonnes of rice, 84 billion tonnes of fresh water is exported every year. Environmental publication Down To Earth estimates this water consumption to be even higher. I am taking a more conservative estimate.
The economic value of non-basmati rice is Rs 36,000 per tonne, so really, India should not be exporting any paddy overseas. India has to export simply because it produces so much rice in excess. I have learnt many of these facts from Ashok Gulati, Professor at ICRIER (Indian Council of Research on International Economic Relations) and among our foremost agronomists.
Punjab has 98 per cent of its land under assured irrigation, and Haryana has almost 90 per cent. Water is freely available to farmers and they are easily tempted to grow paddy. Historically, neither of the states were known to grow this much paddy. They would grow some amount of basmati, but once mostly free canal and groundwater became available to farmers, even the driest regions of the two states began to grow paddy.
The power required to draw out this water from the ground level is also free. So farmer does not have to pay for water, or for power and at the end of the harvest Food Corporation of India comes, gives them a confirmed price and takes away the crop.
Paddy is one of the easiest crops. Farmers can employ labourers from UP and Bihar — who know how to plant and grow paddy better.
On October 1 this year, India’s requirement for buffer stocks of paddy was just about 10.25 million, but India was holding nearly 26.7 billion tonnes. Even after putting cheap prices on public distribution systems, there are no takers. That’s the surplus paddy India holds. Prof Gulati also tells me that on July 1 this year, India was holding more than twice the amount of paddy and wheat needed for our buffer stocks. In financial terms, he says, it amounts to Rs 1.2 lakh crores worth in surplus grain.
A vicious cycle
Here is how a vicious cycle built up. As more farmers took to paddy, groundwater level began to deplete in Punjab and Haryana because farmers were pulling out too much water to grow paddy. The water table is currently going down at the rate of 33 cms per year, or by a metre every three years. Experts estimate the level of water stress by looking at groundwater data and satellite imagery. Zones where water is being depleted faster than nature replenishes it are called “Hard” blocks.
At this point, more than 80% of Punjab is under hard blocks. For Haryana, the figure is just a bit lower. Surely, paddy is not the only culprit, but it is the biggest one. Fact: 45 per cent of all of India’s fresh water is used in paddy cultivation. And we have mounds of surplus paddy we don’t know what to do with.
The solution to this problem should have been to encourage farmers to move away from paddy, to crops that consume lesser water, like corn.
Instead of that, Punjab and Haryana passed identical laws ten years ago (in 2009) called the Preservation of Sub Soil water act, which puts a restriction on the farmers.
It prevents farmers from sowing their crop in April or May, which is what they used to do initially. Because it is very hot and dry then, farmers would need to draw humongous amounts of groundwater. Now they are mandated by law to only plant paddy mid-June onwards when monsoons are expected. Noted economist Ila Patnaik wrote about this in detail in this article for ThePrint.
State is messing with natural crop cycles
Here is how it adds up to STUPIDITY in all capitals: farmers are incentivised to grow too much paddy, with free water and power, and then they are forced to plant it later than the normal time. The state is messing with natural crop cycles, besides ruining farm economics.
Because the crop is now planted about six weeks later, it is also harvested six weeks later — late October to Early November, when wind patterns over Delhi are stationary. If it was harvested earlier, as perfect-2009 (when the sub-soil water preservation laws were enacted), copious latte September/early October winds would have scattered the smog away. Even if farmers still burnt their stubble.
As winter begins in November, farmers have very little time left to plant their wheat, or the Rabi. When farmers were harvesting Kharif paddy in September-October earlier, there was enough time to prepare their land. Now the farmers have the compulsion to quickly clear the land for the next crop.
The farmers, in a hurry, then simply pour diesel and set the remaining stubble on fire.
That is at the root of the early winter smog problem.
What is the solution?
The larger solution is to shift more and more farmers of Punjab and Haryana from rice to vegetables, fruits. It can be a great avenue of exports to the Gulf which has desperate demand for fresh fruits.
However, larger number of farmers will need to shift to maize or corn. The question now arises, as to what will be done with this excess corn? Most of India does not consume corn. Only 20 to 25 per cent of the corn produced in India is consumed by humans directly, about 50 per cent goes into poultry feed, and the rest goes into secondary products like starch and cornflour. There may be demand for a little more, but not what Punjab and Haryana will produce in kharif if the targeted 1 million hectares of land is shifted away from paddy there.
What will India do with the excess maize? An idea that has been floated for a long time is to convert the maize into ethanol, because there is a huge demand for biofuels. India already converts molasses, which comes from sugargcane, into ethanol, and the same can be done with maize,
For example, the US is converting 120 million tonnes of maize to ethanol and mixing it with their fuel.
So far this was not possible in India due to the old bureaucratic fear of food shortages, considering India’s experience with deadly famines. It was argued that in a food vs fuel scenario, one cannot shift land that is growing food to fuel.
But what happens if the land is growing too much food?
We must give the credit where it is due. In the last year of the previous Modi government, they were able to change the system allowing maize to now be converted into ethanol. Nitin Gadkari as transport minister led this move. Some projects have already started in Punjab on a pilot basis. But scaling this up will take time. The government needs to offer a price for maize that makes it more remunerative than paddy for the farmers, and also help them grow the confidence to switch.
The only way to do this is to ‘nudge’ or behavioural change — a concept that is being talked about a great deal these days by Narendra Modi, his chief economic advisor Dr Krishnamurthy Subramanian, even the latest Nobel prize winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.
The government has to nudge the farmers using incentives and disincentives. If one wants to use market solutions for this, farmers will have to be charged for water and power. However, politically that will not be done.
Instead, there is an example of scheme called “Pani Bachao, Paisa Banao” — being piloted in some parts of Punjab which reverses the concept of market solutions. Instead of charging the farmer for the power and water they use, they are paid for what they do not use. For example, if you fare allocated a thousand units of free power, and you use only 800, you are paid back for 200.
These are the kind of schemes that need to be scaled up, and for this, leaders who have a voice — starting with Modi himself.
He has an unprecedented mass following and he is also a master communicator. Modi has to lead this nudge or behavioural change. All other leaders have to avoid politicising the issue for name-calling and push in the same direction. It will take a few years, but it is very possible to show improvement here year after year.
But only if you get the diagnosis right, and treat the root causes of the disease rather than pop double-strength paracetamols and hoping for the best.