Democratising environment

| | in Oped

Concerted efforts on the part of Central and State Governments and also private players is needed to help tackle environmental problems

Governance of a country of the size and diversity as India is not an easy task. Environmental governance is still difficult in this country due to conflicting demands by different ecosystems. Pollution in the National Capital Region and pressure on forest resources for developmental activities play a key role in setting the agenda for both environmental governance and intervention on the part of institutions like the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court.

Hue and cry raised on the issue of burning paddy straw in States like Punjab and Haryana has once again brought the focus back on the overall failure of environmental governance, in spite of the fact that India is one country which has elaborate policy intent, implementing mechanism and legal provisions for sustainable management of environment and natural resources like forests, wildlife, water and land resources.

Problem arises partly due to political indifference/ignorance and largely due to bureaucratic apathy for not developing a vision and failure to mobilise technologies and other resources which are available in plenty for a workable solution at the ground level. Take for example, heavy smog in the Capital city last year, which let us down when several Sri Lankan cricketers were spotted wearing masks during the third and final Test against India in Delhi last November.

This writer remembers attending a meeting of Principal Secretaries of Agriculture of various States in 2014, where the National Policy of Management of Crop Residue was finalised, but the States did not bother to take action on this because it was based on the suggestions for suitable legislation, adoption of technical measures and training of farmers on crop residue management. The National Green Tribunal had in 2015 directed the Punjab Government to come up with an action plan to deal with crop residue burning. However, the Tribunal’s orders exist only on paper, except that burning of crop residue was made illegal.

The State Governments' lackadaisical attitude in asking for Central funds to take action is largely due to the fact that it will take anything between Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 per acre to handle the residue with proper machinery and technology. What is required is an action plan to be jointly planned by several departments and the private sector, which must be monitored by the Central Government and there must also be a tie-up with regards to funds, including from the Green Climate Fund.

There is an urgent need to evolve a time-bound action plan in which funds from different schemes of agriculture, private innovators, Ministries of power and non-conventional energy should be used to deal with crop residues. A case in point is the Memorandum of Understanding between a Chennai waste management and the Punjab Government recently. The State Government will allocate seven acres of land for each unit on a 33-year lease and provide power at subsidised rates for building 400 cluster units over the next 10 months. Each plant would have the capacity to process 50,000 tonne of paddy straw in a year.

Thermal power units and paper industries should also be engaged to use the crop residue. The concept of zero tillage and the use of ‘happy seeder’, which combines stubble mulching and seed drilling functions into one machine as it helps in moisture conservation, apart from providing other benefits like proper mulching of paddy residue instead of burning, timely sowing, reducing run off and soil erosion, lesser deep percolation and improving soil health by incorporating plant nutrients, will ultimately lead to increased productivity for the farmers. There are several other machines which mix straw into the soil through tractor-operated machines. Most of these technologies and machines are costly and beyond the reach of farmers who are mostly small and marginal. Even the medium farmers cannot afford such technologies.

The issue of crop residue management must be accorded top priority as it is also a valuable resource for public economical use. This ‘problem should be converted into a fine opportunity'. For agricultural use of the residue, State agriculture departments must take the responsibility to procure the machinery and create a pool of machines and technology. They must take the responsibility for the small and marginal farmers or form farmers’ self-help groups for use of machines and technology at heavily subsidized rates and/or pooling up of resources. The department should also tie-up with other users of crop residue. The success of the Chennai firm in Punjab needs to be closely monitored. The Union Government must amend its schemes of agriculture mechanisation and technology and the Krishi Vikas Yojana to fund such technologies in the States.

States will also have to show more commitment to environment causes and take the lead in tackling this matter. If this is ensured for a few years with the Government’s support, then it will be automatically adopted on a large scale by farmers in the future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a knack for cracking difficult nuts and with a Cabinet Minister in the form of Harsh Vardhan, who is a Delhite and equally concerned, the capital will probably see smog-free days if action is taken on suggested lines. India needs quick action on this to show to the world that we mean business as pollution in the national capital assumes headline not only in India but in other parts of the world.

(The writer is former Director General of Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education, Chancellor of FRI University, and chairman of Foundation for Integrated Resource Management)

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