Why crop burning continues to smother north India

International Desk
30 November 2020, Mon
Published: 10:28

Why crop burning continues to smother north India

Stubble burning in northern India has long been a major cause of air pollution, but efforts to stop it fail every year. The BBC's Krutika Pathi and Arvind Chhabra find out why.

Plumes of smoke from Avtar Singh's paddy fields envelop his village in Punjab state's Patiala district. Mr Singh has just finished burning left-over straw - known as stubble - to clear the soil for the next crop.

The smoke is likely to travel as far as Delhi, some 250km (155 miles) away, adding to the national capital's toxic haze. It's not just Delhi that suffers. Stubble burning has created a massive public health crisis - its fumes pollute swathes of northern India and endanger the health of hundreds of millions of people.

And it's more dangerous this year with Covid-19 ravaging the country as pollution makes people more vulnerable to infection and slows their recovery. According to some estimates, farmers in northern India burn about 23 million tonnes of paddy stubble every year.

Governments have tried to stop the practice. They've pitched alternatives, they've banned it, they've fined farmers for continuing to do it and they've even thrown a few of them in jail.

They've also tried to reward good behavior - in 2019, the Supreme Court ordered a clutch of northern states to give 2,400 rupees ($32; £24) per acre to every farmer who didn't burn stubble.

Mr Singh, who didn't do it last year, was hoping to get this reward. "We waited a whole year, but we got nothing," he says. "So, like many others, I decided to burn the stubble this year."

In August, the Punjab government admitted they couldn't afford to pay so many farmers. "I don't know any farmer who has been paid this," says Charandeep Grewal, a farmer.

As pollution levels grow, so has the chasm between the country's farmers and policy-makers, who are trying to fix a broken system that has incentivized bulk production over the decades.

Experts say it's partly due to policies that encourage farmers to grow more and not less. A spate of farmer-friendly decisions and cheap subsidies in the 1960s turned Punjab and Haryana into India's biggest contributors of food grains.

But unlike then, India's granaries are no longer empty and the system, which has changed little, is now at loggerheads with strained efforts to clean up the air. Source: BBC