Stubble burning, farm laws and dehumanization of farmers

Indian farmers burning stubble

Mohinder Gulati, former COO of Sustainable Energy for All, which works with the UN to ensure clean energy by 2030 wrote an open letter to Greta Thunberg sandwiching criticism of her support to the Farmers Protest and highlighting the damage from stubble burning in particular in between appreciation for her work. He would hardly be the first. Government propaganda has used concerns about stubble burning and ground water depletion to create the perception that the demands of farmers are harmful to everyone.

This, like most government propaganda is a mix of half truths, selective information and flat out lies.

Stubble burning is basically the practice of burning off the dried rice plants left in the field after harvest. It basically results in large fires that are blamed for everything from pollution and Delhi’s smog to holes in the ozone layer. It has been practiced by humans probably for as long as farming has been practiced, right up to the 1990s, when governments started discouraging it worldwide. With some bizarre reasoning, stubble burning has repeatedly been attached to criticism of the Farmers Protest.

Yet, individuals voluntarily rarely take actions with such coordination that it will cause an environmental impact in another state altogether. But it takes digging to understand. So have some patience and think through this with me. Also, take the time to understand the actual actors, if at all there is a foreign conspiracy.

The Green Revolution

Much of the problem of gigantic quantities of stubble to be burned can be traced back to the Green Revolution. In a nutshell, the Green Revolution was a transformation in how the world did agriculture. It was a push toward high performance farming with hybridized varieties of wheat and rice for better yields, early maturing varieties that allowed for two crops in a season and so on, by big players like USAID, Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. American agronomist and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug visisted India at the request of Indian Minister of Agriculture, Dr. M S Swaminathan to make it happen here.

India, as a country at risk for famines, needed food self-sufficiency. From the traditional crops like wheat, maize and millets, entered “science” driven agriculture that brought in higher yielding seeds, mechanized farming and more and the now familiar wheat-paddy cultivation cycle was established, particularly in states like Punjab and Haryana. The focus of farming shifted strongly to government promoted crops and practices.

The impact was even felt in households everywhere with the increased consumption of rice and wheat. Millets phased out of modern diets. Those of us who are older can still remember when millets were a part of daily diet (or your parents can). Products like sliced bread became commonplace. Many new varieties of rice were consumed.

While the Green Revolution was noteworthy in that it brought food independence to India, it resulted in a cascade of events that were not managed in a responsible manner. Notably an increased reliance on fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation (and thus subsidies) to support the intense demands of high performing crops. The country failed to follow up on the grand vision with the rigor and nuance that was necessary.

Depletion of ground water table also became a problem, as entire districts growing water intensive crops was likely to cause. Rainwater harvesting was made into policy, but rarely enforced.

What is the impact of stubble burning on the environment

I have yet to come across a study that can pin degradation of the environment or even pollution to stubble burning in a manner that can reliably rule out other factors. Other pollution factors have a lot more money than farmers to invest in research, so I would take the whole thing with a pinch of salt. And here is why:

– Stubble burning has been common throughout world history, including farming practices like “slash and burn” or jhum relying on the positive effects of stubble burning. Yet, the problem of stubble burning has caused this disastrous effect mainly in India.
– In 2012, farmers in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in England asked for trials to evaluate the efficacy of stubble burning to combat a growing problem of herbicide resistant blackgrass. Because bans on stubble burning also create other problems for farmers.
– yes, stubble burning does result in large fires, but they are also a brief phenomenon that takes place once a year. Compare this with thermal power stations, for example that run around the clock.
– This would hardly be the first time science was wrong (cigarettes, coconut oil, carbs or fats….).
– Farmers rarely have the budgets to fund independent research into factors that support their experienced reality of agriculture.

This is not to say the science is wrong or that stubble burning doesn’t cause pollution, just that it is hardly fair to blame farmers alone, given that it was prevalent all through and is actually decreasing with no impact on pollution. The data is likely to be biased as absence in the areas where only farmers and small farmers in particular benefit.

Are there any benefits of stubble burning?

Definitely. Stubble burning has the ability to clear large areas of crop residue quickly allowing the planting of the next crop in the recommended time duration. It clears the area of pests and weeds and reduces the need for pesticides and herbicides. It is less labour intensive than manually clearing out crop residues. Remember, the stubble itself is a product of mechanized farming – harvesting with a combine.

The labour to clear the residue without burning is not found when entire districts are full of fields that need to be cleared. Also, the use of the combine harvester for saving labour doesn’t make a lot of sense if it has to be followed up with manual labour anyway. Smaller farmers might as well save on the combine harvesters and simply harvest manually to begin with! Either, of course, will add to costs as manual labour.

Why is stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana being blamed for pollution in Delhi?

Short answer: wind patterns. In 2009, the SAD-BJP government in Punjab enacted the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act that basically banned the sowing of rice before notified dates after monsoon started in order to prevent depletion of the ground water table. This shifted the sowing, and this the harvest a month or more forward and reduced the gap between the harvest of paddy and the sowing of wheat. This, in turn encourages stubble burning, because the fields have to be cleared fast for sowing. But the real problem for Delhi is that the seasonal wind patterns now favor the smoke from the fires riding the north-east wind straight into Delhi, adding to Delhi’s urban pollution, Diwali season. The dry season also lacks rain to settle some of it down. Additionally, the paddy sowing starting at similar dates also harvests around a similar time, creating a stubble-burning week or two.

What is the real cause behind stubble burning being a problem?

If you ask the government, it is the farmers who are lazy and want to take the easy way to clearing the fields. Yet, what alternatives do they have? Equipment to sow the fields with stubble is expensive and government does not want to continue to subsidize it. Government policies make it so that everyone’s stubble needs to be cleared in a small window of time. Alternatives to stubble burning are either expensive or require labour, which is short and will be expensive during a high demand in a short burst of time. Farming is already economically precarious.

In my view, the real cause behind stubble burning being a problem is the usual – lack of adequate rigor in making policies. The fallout of state policies and the cost of implementing them – from the Green Revolution to preventing ground water table depletion or now – to prevent pollution – has always fallen on the farmers. State policies are why they are burning stubble all at once, at a time when smoke from the fires would blow into Delhi.

If the government claims political motivations, BJP should also recognize that it was part of the government that caused this, and now, in the center, it is using the result of its own policies to delegitimize farmers.

Is stubble burning adequate reason to delegitimize farmers protest?

To begin with, farm laws apply nationwide. Stubble burning is a problem in two states, mainly. And the farm laws do not regulate stubble burning at all (or ground water, for that matter – the other bogeyman). One thing has nothing to do with the other. This is simply government propaganda demonizing the farmers over an unrelated cause to make the gullible masses believe that they should not support the farmers.

Would contract farming reduce stubble burning?

I don’t see how, unless the government has undisclosed plans to make it mandatory for contracts to prohibit it. If this is the case, then the farmers would basically be blackmailed into further economic hardship. Note, that without stubble burning, lower crop production or quality due to delays in sowing, etc – would also be disadvantageous to farmers in fulfilling contracts.

Perhaps this is what the government refers to as corporations providing assistance to farmers. Again, corporations are not charitable organizations – they operate for profit and to spend least possible amount on procuring. Corporations cannot do what governments can – to set aside a budget for the welfare of the public without having to recover profits from it. This is the bottom line.

Any assistance provided, would be offset against payments – in the end it would be the farmer being forced to spend on things they can’t afford currently. If the corporations grew a conscience and did provide the “assistance” to farmers without cost to farmers, the cost would be recovered from buyers – which would be you. Failing that, who purchases the grains, where or how would not change whether stubble burning is done.

What can be done to reduce pollution from stubble burning?

The problem of stubble burning is clearly one of magnitude and concentration. Many things can be done to prevent this convergence. It is also linked with the problem of a depleting ground water table (a separate post will follow about this). If proper rain water harvesting can be done, there will be no need to force farmers to delay the sowing of paddy, which will automatically stagger the sowing, and hence the harvest. It will allow farmers to get in two crops of rice (which in turn requires more water – more in the other post) and afford them the economic sustainability to pursue incentives against stubble burning. A staggered rice sowing season will also stagger any stubble burning over a longer period and reduce concentrations. Early sowing will allow farmers the time to explore clearing the stubble through slower means. Agricultural labour will have a longer and more sustainable employment season.

Crop diversification will help as well. The farmers support crop diversification. They are limited by policy support.

The pollution impact of stubble burning can also be reduced by moving to clean power to reduce overall pollution – astonishing that Mohinder Gulati of the sustainable energy did not mention this. Coal powered industries and thermal plants are a major pollutants. Reduction in reliance on coal for industries and power generation will in turn reduce the overall pollution – around the year! India’s greehouse gas emissions are the third highest in the world, and the biggest culprit here is the burning of coal.

The government could also factor in dates of Diwali when they announce the sowing dates for rice (if they must) to ensure that stubble burning after harvest and Diwali don’t coincide.

Efforts toward reforestation and incentivizing the growing of trees on private land. It is no coincidence that the areas that show the impact of stubble burning pollution also are basically non-forested. Trees help refresh the air, provide wind breaks and help enrich soil health.

These are some of my thoughts on stubble burning in the context of the farmers protest. Yes, it is a problem, but it is not one the farmers have much control over. More importantly, the farm laws do nothing to actually solve the problem, so the manner in which the argument is used – to delegitimize the demands of farmers – is illogical and frankly, malicious. Farmers acting independently have no impact over the regional conditions! It is conditions that coordinate their individual actions into a magnitude that can create a pollution problem in entirely different states! They have no power to impose these conditions, and in fact, have contested them. These conditions have been created by the government. The government has also failed to create other conditions that mitigate them – like enforcing of rainwater harvesting to support the agricultural push. To blame the farmers for the results of policy and further use it as an excuse to deny them their rights is malicious governance.

Remember, Punjab was not traditionally a state of rice cultivators. They took this on in support of a nation’s quest for food self-sufficiency, delivered and are being paid for it by a food self-sufficient country with policies that are destroying those that grow the food, AND blame them for harm to others. If you think they do not deserve such dehumanization, it is time that you started understanding the problem beyond listening to political one-liners endorsing or opposing political moves.

Note: Long as this post is, it actually fails to go into the desired depth on this subject, and I urge independent minded readers to investigate and inform themselves better.

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