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The Stick Has To Be Used For The Right Thing: Bhure Lal, Chairman, EPCA

The EPCA Chairman (and former Secretary, CVC) Bhure Lal, tells BW Businessworld’s Prabodh Krishna that the impact of stubble burning on the winter air was severe

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

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The Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) was set up on a directive from the Supreme Court of India to tackle critical impacts of pollution. The EPCA Chairman (and former Secretary, CVC)  Bhure Lal, tells BW Businessworld’s Prabodh Krishna that the impact of stubble burning on the winter air was severe

What is the mid-October to November  weather pattern like in the northern plains of  India?
We presume that from 15 October there will be moisture in the air. Air speed will get retarded and because of  low wind velocity and moisture in the environment, dust particles and particulate matter will then settle on these water vapours and start causing trouble.
 
How is the air quality index impacted once stubble burning begins in the farm fields around Delhi
It (stuble burning) generates carbon, it generates some sulphur and many other toxic gases and particulate matter too, so it is going to complicate the situation for sure. Media has been reporting figures of emissions, all of course, toxic in nature.

 What are the wind patterns like in this season? Do they aggravate the situation greatly?
From 1 November, winds are expected from the side of Punjab and if stubble continues to burn there, there is no need to tell you what the consequences could be.

Farm Union leaders say wind patterns are usually east to west in this  season and that stubble burning is not to blame for the high pollution .

Let me tell you, no one can control wind patterns. Man has no control over it. I will remind everyone that some three months back, dusts from Oman penetrated Delhi. It can’t be controlled.

Why is stubble burning such a nightmare?
Everyone knows this, especially the farmers. We have recorded conversations with farmers. There was a lady I remember, who elaborated on its impact. The farmers who are burning stubble on their field know that it is harmful for everyone, including the farm field. For the farmer, setting his field on fire (after  the harvest) is an easy and effortless solution to the stubble on the field.

Do you know of alternatives to this attitude?
Yes, I know of one other farmer from Punjab who is burying the stubble in the field and his input costs have dropped drastically, due to less use of fertiliser and water. He told us that he is benefiting from it.  

What have policy-makers done to tackle the problem this time?
I think the Government of India has earmarked a hefty sum of Rs 1, 200 crore as subsidy for tools and equipment to help convert the stubble into fertiliser. Combine harvester, marcher, rotavators etc. will all come under this subsidy, which is being given to both individuals and communities. The amount is quite significant and I know that people have made use of it too. A large number of farmers have applied for the subsidy and got it too.

Where exactly is the problem in your opinion?
Farmers know the impact of stubble burning, therefore I think we need a cultural change here. A Super Straw (SS) management system combined with harvesters, followed by other equipment is a good solution. It will remove tiny parts and one can go ahead with wheat sowing.
There are seeding options where seeds can easily be sowed without disturbing the rest of the field, so options are available.

You have been a policy-maker at a  senior level. What does stubble burning cost the economy?
In one word I shall call it (the costs) huge. More carbon gets dissolved in the soil with stuble burning, making the crop more water-intensive. It kills friendly worms in the soil, necessitating use of more fertilisers. This entire scenario seriously impacts agricultural production both quantitatively and qualitatively.

 There are good examples in both Bihar and Odisha, where farmers plough the stubble back into the soil and need to use less fertiliser. There is no cost-benefit analysis involved here. Stubble burning is an option of ease and less effort and having a shorter period for sowing the next crop.
Now, use of  tools and equipment give you an edge in terms of time and also ensure better nutrition for the soil. Destroying the environment and the cost that it entails is the downside of stubble burning. It also causes diseases.  Eventually stubble needs to be converted to a utility item.

How about the cost to health?
An IIT Bombay study revealed that health expenses due to air pollution in Delhi and Mumbai alone were as high as Rs 80, 000 crore, where Delhi contributed a major share. Look at the rise in the number of hospital admissions during the season! The Director of AIIMS made a statement to this effect a few days ago.  

Would it be justifiable for the government to track down recalcitrant farmers through satellite images and file police cases against them?
Look, it is a simple carrot and stick approach by the government. You need to keep things in a certain way for discipline. The government has offered a carrot, but if you are not doing the right thing, the stick has to be used. That is the reason why there is a need for a cultural change.
       
 What may be the possible justification for stubble burning?
No one can justify it. It needs to be converted into a utility item. It can be converted into fuel, it can be converted into fodder, but the higher silica content makes it less tasty for cattle. Power generation is very much on the cards. Punjab itself is generating 62 megawatt of power from stubble. Stubble can also be converted into jute like items.


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