Indian farmers and environmentalists have hailed the government’s move to decriminalise stubble-burning but have urged authorities to help end the earth-scorching method that is blamed for aggravating worsening air pollution in New Delhi.
The capital is one of the world’s most polluted cities. It suffers from the scourge of air pollution throughout the year but toxic air levels soar during winter when winds push the smoke from farmlands into the city and shroud it under a blanket of smog.
Stubble-burning, which involves farmers setting fire to leftover rice straw, was banned by an environmental court in 2015. It was repeatedly endorsed by the Supreme Court after several studies found that the crude practice exacerbates the air pollution crisis in Delhi.
Estimates say about 20 million tonnes of stubble is burnt in the vast farmlands of the northern states of Haryana and Punjab between October and November when farmers clear their fields for the next crop.
More than 70,000 farm fires were reported in the twin breadbasket states this season, with Nasa satellite imagery showing 57,000 fires between November 1 and November 13.
This month, the government told the Supreme Court that farm fires accounted for an average of 10 per cent of the city’s air pollution. But government monitoring agencies say at its worst the effect of farm fires can account for 45 per cent of Delhi’s pollution.
Those caught stubble-burning are either fined for flouting the court ban or charged under the Indian penal code, which could lead to jail terms of one month.
The announcement by the government is the latest move to placate protesting farmers – who are camping at the borders of Delhi to press for renewed demands – after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal three divisive farm laws.
Farmers have refused to end their year-long protest, which was sparked by the contentious legislation, until the government decriminalises stubble-burning, reforms its electricity laws and promises guaranteed benchmark rates for agricultural produce.
"The farmers' demand was to decriminalise stubble-burning. The Government of India has agreed to this demand," Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told an Indian news agency.
Farmers hailed the move but have demanded that the government follows up with subsidies and alternative methods to help them manage and dispose of millions of tonnes of farm residue.
“It is a welcome move but rather than just decriminalising it, farmers should be given a substitute. People will stop burning stubble if they know how to get rid of the stubble without burning it,” Lovepreet Singh, 24, a farmer protesting at the Singhu border, told The National.
Environmentalists say the ban on stubble-burning was an ad hoc measure and is a move in the right direction as the government needs to find a long-lasting solution to the issue.
“While decriminalising stubble-burning, the government has a responsibility to raise awareness in farmers and to find and implement real solutions to farm waste management,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told The National.