India plan to stop crop burning ‘not enough’ to end pollution

As India’s government announces new budget plan to combat pollution in major cities, experts note more needs to be done.

A man walks through a field amidst smog in New Delhi
Activists warn the government's recent announcement may do little to cut the air pollution in cities [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

India‘s capital, New Delhi, may not breathe easy for some more winters, if the budget allocation for a major anti-pollution measure is any indicator.

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Wednesday announced a budget of $177m over two years to reduce crop residue burning, a key reason for the air pollution crisis that has gripped major Indian cities, especially the capital, New Delhi.

The government’s own policy advisory body, NITI Aayog, had estimated $600m needed to be spent every year to prevent farmers from burning the crop waste left over after harvesting.

“The intended usage of these allocated funds is to help farmers purchase and use these mechanical implements that would help them do in-situ (on site) management of the crop residue,” said Polash Mukherjee at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

“The amount allocated is not enough. Our own estimates of funds needed are far higher than this. This is a problem that needs a long-time fix,” Mukherjee added.

The government plan would give money to farmers in three states bordering Delhi: Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, to cover 80 percent of the cost of machinery to remove the crop stubble.

Crop burning from adjoining states caused one-quarter of the bad air in New Delhi, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told members of parliament earlier this year.

According to a state Pollution Control Board, farmers in northern states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan burn millions of tonnes of crop waste around October every year, to clear farmland before sowing the winter crop. An estimated 35 million tonnes are set afire in Punjab and Haryana every year, which contributes to the haze and smog in New Delhi.

In November last year, the US embassy air pollution tracker showed levels of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter that enters deep into the lungs and bloodstream, repeatedly breached 700, which is double the mark of 300 that authorities deem as hazardous. Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of New Delhi, had called the city “a gas chamber”, owing to its toxic air.

However, the government’s recent announcement may do little to cut the air pollution in cities, warn activists.

Farm activist Kavitha Kuruganti expressed frustration at the government’s inability to grasp that “the problem is deeper than that.

“If they use this for subsidising labour, there is little possibility. What we need are cropping shifts supported by procurement. This money is inadequate,” Kuruganti told Al Jazeera.

In the absence of concerted government action on battling pollution and political blame-games, courts have stepped in several times in the past years.

Last year, the top court temporarily banned the sale of firecrackers in and around New Delhi before the Hindu festival of Diwali, sparking debate over the decision. It also outlawed the sale of luxury diesel vehicles and ordered a tax on trucks entering the city.

Science journal Lancet has said half a million Indians have died prematurely due to PM2.5.

Arvind Kumar, a lung surgeon at Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, warns “staying in a polluted city like Delhi ultimately shortens one’s life by 10 years or so.

“Pollution affects all ages – from life in the mother’s womb to the elderly. In Delhi on a typically polluted day, it’s equal to smoking about 15 cigarettes a day. The worst affected are children – their airwaves are very small and when the toxins cause swelling in the airwaves, they have breathing problems,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

“When the toxins are inhaled, they get lodged inside. The reality is once toxins are deposited in the lungs, they are deposited there forever and they cause immediate and long-term damage ranging from asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis to lung cancer,” he added.

India’s government has struggled to get ahead of the problem, and it is unfair to blame and penalise farmers with limited resources for clearing farmlands by setting fire to crop residue, according to some experts.

“The government’s approach to handling stubble burning is not the right way to address this issue. The problem with policymakers is that they can’t look beyond machines. This money that is being allocated is actually to buy or subsidise machines,” Devinder Sharma, an independent food and trade policy analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“But the solution does not lie in pushing more machines to the farmers. Instead, equip them with adequate financial resources so they can themselves ensure the stubble is not burned,” he said.

“Why are governments reluctant to pay farmers? Why do they insist on paying companies and manufacturers? Advisory bodies like Niti Aayog are only looking at corporate interests,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera