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India’s choking diwali smoke billows from a failed farm policy

ByDavid Fickling

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 festivalthe gloom isdeepening. To the usual fumes from 8 million cars and weather conditions that stop haze from dissipating, you can add the smoke frommillions of contraband fireworks—and the soot fromtens of thousandsof rice paddiesthat 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 yearbecause 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 toa pack-a-day cigarette habit.

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This year, schools in Delhi havesuspended in-person classesand government employees are working from home.Construction and demolitionin the capital is being banned temporarily, while drivers will beallowed touse their vehiclesonly on alternate daysin 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 farmpolicies that aremaking 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 capitalhave 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 sowthe ground without burning,while simultaneously lifting crop yields, improving soil nutrition, reducing carbon emissions and increasing profits for farmers.

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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 yearshave been junked or abandoned, the Indian Express newspaper reported last month. New and improved models thatmade initial designsobsolete, 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 thesubsidies, they’re oftentoo 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.

Oilmay have dealt the final blow. The price of the diesel fuel consumed by farm tractorsis up by more than half since 2017, when India’s central governmentreleased its main planfor 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 resortingto sticks. State governments this year haveboastedof the fines they’ve been handing out for illegal fires, but the penalties don’t seem to bedraconian enough.Fines of5,000 rupees ($60) per incidentfor a typical three-acre farm aren’t enough to discourage behavior unless enforcement is almost universal, given the fact thatmost farmers are likely saving four-figure sums for each acre they set alight.

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

Punjab and Haryana werenot historicallyrice-growing areas, and have only attained their current prominence thanks to aggressive government intervention. The real solution would be to shift rice-growing towetter states in the east of the country —but doing that wouldinvolve 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 protestscaused the government in 2021 to reverse a farm law that would have cut the subsidy bill byderegulatingcrop prices. India’s urbanites are going to keep choking through Diwali for many years to come.

(Published 10 November 2023, 09:05 IST)

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