Soot of our indulgence

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Soot of our indulgence

Tuesday, 22 October 2019 | Indra Shekhar singh

Soot of our indulgence

Delhiites must realise that stubble doesn't burn throughout the year, yet we lose loved ones to air pollution. It's time we cleanse our filth and rejuvenate Delhi with nature and life

The smoke emanating from the fields burning in the National Capital Region (NCR) blends with Delhi’s ecosphere to give each adult lung the world’s most toxic 11,000 litres of air a day. However, smoke emanating from burning crop stubble only adds to our troubles and that too episodically as other major pollutants are automobiles, industries, dust and construction activities. Our notion of success unfortunately has serious environmental ramifications. The measures of our wealth are numerous cars, tractors, larger ACs, new houses, bigger bikes and an adulation for conquest of nature, which is very hard to change. Diwali card parties are often broadcasts for every new car, mall and house in the vicinity. So much so that we have become enamoured by the idea of ecological destruction.

Similarly, the farmers around Delhi have also been ensnared by the habit of biomass burning. This is an age-old practice, which originated when farmers were “advised by agricultural experts” to switch over to paddy, keeping aside their native varieties and crops post the Green Revolution. These hybrid paddy varieties created the problem of stubble as cattle rejected the fodder made from their straw. As the crop residue created an unexpected problem, farmers were told to burn the stubble as “ashes benefit the soil.” Gradually the cattle started to disappear and the practice spread around Delhi.

Farmers burn stubble mainly because they have become habituated to this cost-effective method, as described by Tota Singh of Ludhiana. He has been working for the past few years to stop stubble burning in Punjab. In his own experience, he believes it can be changed. I agree with him. The most simple solution to stubble burning is, mulching. “Ashes to ashes and stubble to mulch,” can be the motto that farmers can adopt. Mulching paddy means uprooting the straw, spreading it and allowing it to compost on the fields. This step would add significant organic matter to the soil, thereby increasing its fertility, water retention capacity and reducing use of fertilisers for the next crop. This would also prevent weeds from emerging as mulched paddy straw would cover the fields. Apart from all the agricultural benefits, this ecological process provides Delhi her much-need eco-system services. Mulching from Punjab to western Uttar Pradesh can sequester many tonnes of carbon  and help soak up excessive emissions choking the national Capital.

But no change or good work is without its challenges. Most farmers own either small or medium holdings and have limited resources — financial and technical. They are already hurting due to falling farm incomes and higher input cost, so hiring labour or buying machinery to mulch or remove the stubble from fields is beyond their means. They need training and there needs to be an intensive awareness campaign on stubble burning, informing them of viable alternatives.

This is where the Government of Delhi and the industry can step in. The latter can lead by making biomass a valuable raw material. For example, rice straw, as already announced by IKEA, can be used to make lampshades and other household accessories. Then the power industry can convert rice straw into pellets and briquettes for the boilers in coal power plants. The same straw can be used to make biochar, bio-CNG or gas. The good news is that all of this can be done with technology currently available to the Indian industry. This conversion of straw from waste to raw material will give farmers a little extra income and save cities like Delhi from pollution. 

It will be a win-win situation for all, as the industry will get raw material cheap, the farmers will get money for their waste and Delhi-NCR will be free of choking smoke. The Government can facilitate this by designating special industrial zones within these areas to minimise logistics. Tax breaks for companies helping farmers stop stubble burning may also be considered.

However, the Herculean responsibility of getting this done lies with Government, both in the concerned States and at the Centre. The issue of crop residue burning can be used to catapult the whole region towards sustainability, instead of being the nightmare it is now.

As India now produces a large surplus of rice, the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western UP may now be encouraged to grow other crops. We as a nation have to break the paddy-wheat cycle, by pushing for agro-ecological farming and crop diversity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheme to bring back traditional farming and promote organic clusters should be first implemented around Delhi. Farmers should also be encouraged to grow millet, pulses, oilseeds or fruits instead of paddy. Once they adopt organic methods, they can get premium money for their produce, which may double their profits.

We can learn from Germany. It has  a system which incentivises farmers for providing cities with eco-services, (by practising agro-ecological farming and agro-forestry). Organic farming means no use of chemicals or industrialised farming, which reduces emissions, minimises toxic runoffs of chemicals and cleans the water system. These clusters also act as carbon sinks around cities like Berlin. 

Farmers in Delhi Dehat, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh should work in sync and be given assistance to convert their farms to organic ones or pursue agro-forestry. If possible, the larger farmers around Delhi should be incentivised to plant orchards. The need of the hour is for Delhi to have a green wall of trees encircling it.

Private corporates can play a corrective role as well. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has said it has adopted over 100 villages and 100,000 acres of farm area in Punjab and Haryana to enable zero crop residue burning. The industry body has adopted Ludhiana, Barnala and Patiala districts in Punjab, and Rohtak, Sirsa and Fatehabad in Haryana.

The next major policy requires the Government to push a robust urban rooftop gardening policy. Starting with the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) apartments, all Government buildings should have either a solar panel or low-cost urban gardens, growing vegetables and food. If cities in France, Germany and nearer home Singapore have done this, why not Delhi?

They have converted vast concrete jungles into organic food gardens,  providing fresh food and vegetables for their cities, creating more employment and reducing a big load of “food miles” along with carbon emissions. All Delhi Government schools can be role models for the world by growing delicious vegetables and beating pollution at the same time. We have to make the soil of Delhi breathe again, otherwise we will suffocate with it.

The Delhi Government also needs to levy an “air cess” on every car or vehicle bought into Delhi-NCR. This tax can be used to support the eco-services like agro-forestry and urban gardening. The Delhi Government has also to control the rampant Ola-Uberisation of Delhi. I don’t own a car so as not to pollute the city further but I feel the Odd-Even scheme of vehicle rationing will work better if the Government doesn’t allow Uber and Ola to run unlimited taxis in the city.  It is time to promote cycle tracks in areas such as South Delhi.

 Finally, all residents of Delhi have to realise that stubble doesn’t burn throughout the year, yet we lose loved ones to severe diseases caused by air pollution. The Government, industry and farmers can act within limits.  We have to collectively shed our complacency and not  let air pollution be the master of our lives. Our cars, money and air purifiers are not enough to save us and our children. We need to resist  the colonisation of our minds and our air. It’s time we save our city from an ecological enslavement, by cleansing our filth and rejuvenating Delhi with nature and life.

We have to act now, or be poisoned by the soot of our own indulgence. I chose life and ecological resistance for the right of Delhi to breathe, will you?

(The writer is Programme Director for Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India)

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