Saturday, December 2, 2023

air quality: View: India’s choking Diwali smoke billows from a failed farm policy

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Murk is once again descending on India’s festival of light. Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities at the best of times, but in the days leading up to Sunday’s Diwali festival the gloom is deepening. To the usual fumes from 8 million cars and weather conditions that stop haze from dissipating, you can add the smoke from millions of contraband fireworks — and the soot from tens of thousands of rice paddies that go up in flames at the turn of the season.

Diwali likely originated as a harvest celebration, and farmers in the states surrounding India’s capital still burn off the stubble in their rice fields at this time of year because it’s a quick and cheap way of preparing the ground for the winter wheat crop. The cost is paid by the hundreds of millions of people living in the rice-wheat belt, who must breathe in air so laden with particulates that it’s equivalent to a pack-a-day cigarette habit.


This year, schools in Delhi have suspended in-person classes and government employees are working from home. Construction and demolition in the capital is being banned temporarily, while drivers will be allowed to use their vehicles only on alternate days in an attempt to limit exhaust gases. All of this is a sign that years of efforts by governments in Delhi and its neighboring states have failed to fix farm policies that are making one of the world’s biggest cities unlivable.The main focus of efforts to end the stubble-burning in recent years has been mechanization. Governments in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab surrounding the capital have offered subsidies as high as 50% for farmers to buy the Happy Seeder, Super Seeder and other devices. These tractor-pulled implements have been treated as a sort of miracle invention that can prepare and sow the ground without burning, while simultaneously lifting crop yields, improving soil nutrition, reducing carbon emissions and increasing profits for farmers.

It’s an agricultural revolution that’s managed to convince everyone except farmers. As many as 90% of the Happy Seeders distributed in Punjab in recent years have been junked or abandoned, the Indian Express newspaper reported last month. New and improved models that made initial designs obsolete, plus the challenges of using them effectively and the rising cost of fuel, saw many machines go out of use after just a single season.


Despite the subsidies, they’re often too expensive for small farmers, even on a rental basis, the Tribune reported. Every day waiting to get your hands on the district seeder in prime sowing season reduces your meager profits. Smallholders may also need to upgrade to more powerful tractors capable of pulling them, further adding to costs. Compared to the simplicity and speed of dropping a match into the rice straw, it’s hard for mechanization to compete.

Oil may have dealt the final blow. The price of the diesel fuel consumed by farm tractors is up by more than half since 2017, when India’s central government released its main plan for tackling the fires. As a result, the modest financial benefits from using seeders have been whittled away to nothing.

Without the carrot of new technology, officials are resorting to sticks. State governments this year have boasted of the fines they’ve been handing out for illegal fires, but the penalties don’t seem to be draconian enough. Fines of 5,000 rupees ($60) per incident for a typical three-acre farm aren’t enough to discourage behavior unless enforcement is almost universal, given the fact that most farmers are likely saving four-figure sums for each acre they set alight.


The fundamental problem is that India’s pursuit of food security has created a farm sector riven with subsidies — for water, for the fuel that runs the pumps that draw it up from the ground, for agricultural chemicals, for the minimum prices the government guarantees for key crops, for farmer incomes, and for the Happy Seeders themselves.

Punjab and Haryana were not historically rice-growing areas, and have only attained their current prominence thanks to aggressive government intervention. The real solution would be to shift rice-growing to wetter states in the east of the country — but doing that would involve taking on the vested interests of farmers by dismantling the current web of subsidies that supports northern farms.

That’s unlikely to happen. India is six months from a general election, and the main states involved are strongholds of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — in the case of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — and, in Delhi and Punjab, the AAP, a rising force of the opposition. Two-thirds of people still live in rural areas, and a year of protests caused the government in 2021 to reverse a farm law that would have cut the subsidy bill by deregulating crop prices. India’s urbanites are going to keep choking through Diwali for many years to come.

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