Between October and November every year, farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have a rather short window to harvest the paddy crop planted in the monsoon and prepare their fields to sow the next crop, which is usually wheat.

Around 20 million tonnes of paddy straw is generated during the harvest. Most farmers resort to burning the stubble of the paddy in order to quickly clear the fields.

The burning of stubble in the vast fields in these states, along with the falling temperatures and decreased wind speed, contributes to air pollution in North India and particularly in the landlocked national capital.

Stubble burning can contribute between 20% to 70% of Delhi’s air pollution woes during October and November. Last year, this figure stood at 80%, claimed an official at the Delhi Pollution Control Board who did not wish to be identified.

But has the contribution of stubble burning to air pollution reduced? Maybe not.

“It is more or less the same,” said the official, adding that the problem was not limited to Delhi but expanded to the entire Indo-Gangetic plain.

That, however, does not mean that states are not making an effort to prevent crop fires, he said. “We cannot say that we are not doing anything about it,” the official said. “[But] the problem is still huge. There are still fires in Punjab and now there are fires also in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It is a big cloud [of pollution] that covers the entire place.”

For several years, states surrounding Delhi have scrambled to solve the problem. Punjab and Haryana state governments have taken multiple measures to incentivise farmers and prevent them from setting their fields on fire. How successful have they been?

An annual phenomenon

Over the years, there have been several studies on the sources of pollution in North India. These include pollutants from vehicular emissions, industrial activities and burning of coal and wood, according to multiple studies. But the traditional practice of setting vast fields on fire to prepare for the next sowing season contributes significantly as well.

In previous years, the Centre took numerous initiatives but it is unclear if those were able to bring about any change. In 2014, the Union Agriculture ministry formed the National Policy for Management of Crop Residue for states that prescribed multiple objectives for the management of stubble with the use of technology. But no significant progress has been made on this front, according to a paper by The Energy and Resources Institute in 2020.

Last year in October, the Supreme Court had directed the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments to formulate plans to prevent crop residue burning and provide incentives to farmers. At the same time, the apex court formed a committee under retired Justice Madan Lokur to monitor stubble burning.

Barely ten days later, the court suspended the committee after the Centre assured them of bringing a legislation to tackle pollution. It was then introduced as an ordinance, which took the shape of the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Act, passed by Parliament in August this year.

The Act empowers the Centre to form a commission to monitor air quality in and around the capital. It consolidates all the bodies under it and also replaces the Supreme Court-monitored Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, which has been a pioneering environmental body for over 20 years.

Since its formation, the commission, which functions under the Union environment ministry, has held several meetings and issued directions to state governments, according to its press releases.

In a statement on September 22, it said it had procured 1,43,801 machines to chop off the stubble on the fields and was in the process of procuring another 56,513 machines. The commission is also monitoring the deployment of a bio-decomposer or “Pusa decomposer” developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute over six lakh acres of fields in Uttar Pradesh, one lakh acres in Haryana, 7,413 acres in Punjab and 4,000 acres in Delhi, the statement added.

The decomposer consists of a packet of four capsules costing Rs 20 which produce enzymes that have the ability to act on the components of paddy straw. The draw gets decomposed with active fungus within 25 days.

The commission’s statement added that it had directed 11 thermal power plants within 300 kms radius of Delhi to use crop residue as fuel. This would be in the form of paddy straw bullets that would reduce the consumption of coal by 10% in biomass firing, the Indian Express reported.

What states have done

Punjab, the state which bears most of the scrutiny for the yearly crop fires has undertaken several initiatives. The state generates 20 million tonnes of paddy straw that is available for 55 days and the basic question is how to store it and create a supply chain, said Krunesh Garg, member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board.

The state has decided to lease out panchayat land for 33 years to industries to store paddy straw. “It will be a common land for villages and industries will pay rent for it to the panchayat,” said Garg.

The straw can be managed in-situ, that is on the site of the fields or outside of it. To manage it on the site, the state has provided farmers with 71,000 primary crop residue machines, he said. “This can take care of at least one-third of the paddy straw.”

But these machines are still not economically viable for most farmers in Punjab and Haryana – they cost nearly Rs 2 lakh. The Punjab government offers an 80% subsidy on the machines to cooperative societies and farmers’ groups, and a 50% subsidy to individual farmers.

However, many reports have pointed that lax attitude of government officials and local elections play a key role in the implementation of such schemes.

“Enforcement mechanism is a different thing,” said Garg.

The Punjab government has also roped in private industry to manage crop stubble by creating a Rs 25-crore scheme for paper mills and sugar mills to incentivise them to install boilers that use paddy straw as fuel. This year, the usage of straw will increase from three lakh tonne to five lakh tonnes, said Garg. These paddy straw boilers are being incentivised for distilleries and bio-ethanol projects as well, he said.

To monitor fire incidents, the state will deploy more than 8,000 nodal officers in various districts that were identified as hotspots.

Yet, it is unclear how much change these measures are able to bring about. The Centre claims that farm fires increased in Punjab by 44% last year, according to an affidavit it filed in the Supreme Court in February.

In Haryana, at least 922 villages have been earmarked as hotspots for residue burning, the Hindustan Times reported. The state government has also deployed nodal officers to monitor stubble burning and has staggered the harvest from its 34 lakh acres of paddy so that more machines are available, the report added.

The Delhi government, on the other hand, has placed its faith in the bio-decomposer or the “Pusa decomposer” developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

Around 822 farmers will spray the solution on 4,200 acres of farmland in Delhi in October, according to a government press release.

While these measures have been rolled out, will they solve the problem at large? Experts seem largely unconvinced. “The only solution that will be effective in the long run is crop diversity,” said Polash Mukherjee, who leads the air quality and climate resilience vertical for the India chapter of Natural Resources Defense Council.

It has been routinely argued that diversification in what farmers sow with adequate government support is the only way for them to break out of the wheat and paddy cycle that leads many of them to rely on stubble burning. “It is the only long term solution,” Mukherjee said.

The Haryana government has promised Rs 7,000 per acre as incentives to farmers if they switch from paddy to other diverse crops. Farmers have registered at least 98,000 acres for diversification this year, the Hindustan Times reported.

Impact of farmers protests?

Farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have been protesting against three contentious farm laws at the borders of Delhi for nearly a year.

But does this anger against the Central government have any impact on stubble burning?

Last year, between September 21 and November 14, Punjab recorded the highest number of farm fire incidents since 2016, The Hindu reported. The increase in the number of incidents was attributed to anger over the farm laws among other reasons, the report stated.

Officials in Punjab said the farm laws did impact efforts to prevent crop fires but added reports of increased fires did not paint the full picture. “We have to see the size of the area burnt as opposed to the number of fires,” said Garg, the Punjab Pollution Control Board official. “Last year the area burnt was 5% less than previous years,” he claimed.

States have also imposed fines on farmers for crop fires. In Punjab, settling fire to a field of less than two acres attracts a fine of Rs 2,500, while a fine of Rs 5,000 is imposed if the field is between two and five acres, according to a report in the Hindustan Times. If the field on fire is over five acres then the fee shoots up to Rs 15,000.

Last year in October, the state imposed a total fine of Rs 12.5 lakh in 460 stubble burning cases. In the same month, Haryana issued 252 challans for a total fine of Rs 6.5 lakh, and filed 124 first information reports against the offenders.

Even then, officials agreed it was unfair to penalise farmers and said there was need for more awareness. “We cannot say that farmers are culprits but there are many loose ends which need to be taken care of,” said Garg. “They do not all have the infrastructure and time gap between harvesting and sowing.”

Besides, the protesting farmers were also up in arms against the Commission for Air Quality Management ordinance since it imposes a fine of up to Rs 1 crore and imprisonment up to five years for stubble burning and violating pollution norms. In December last year, the Centre decided to exclude farmers from the penalties after reaching a consensus with them.

While the change was made, farmer leaders pointed out that the commission was still empowered to penalise them under another section of the ordinance. While Section 14 of the ordinance states that no penalties will apply to farmers, Section 15 states that the commission “may impose and collect environmental compensation from farmers causing air pollution by stubble burning, at such rate and in such manner”.

“What they [Centre] conceded through is something they brought in again through the back door,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch and Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella group of several farmers’ unions protesting against the laws.