Collaborative state can curb north India’s stubble burning

On the eve of Diwali and the day after the festival, air quality “only” dropped to “very poor” instead of “hazardous”, which is a small victory and mercy over the consistent environmental onslaught of the last decade.

On October 17, the Central government’s Commission of Air Quality Management issued a statement, based on IARI analysis of NASA data, that paddy stubble burning incidents have reduced between September 15 to October 16 — from 2,375 in 2021 to 1,444 in 2022 in Punjab and from 1,026 in 2021 to 244 in 2022 in Haryana. All of this could be attributed to better governance and PUSA decomposer spraying but is more likely a function of the asynchronous Diwali-crop season, extended monsoon, heavy unseasonal rainfall and marginal bureaucratic improvements.

Regardless of reduction in stubble burning incidents, Delhi’s air pollution will worsen over the next few weeks as we enter the dry winter, festival season and the farmers’ dire need to plant wheat and vegetables. The most important and powerful first responder will be the state comprising the legislature, democratic and bureaucratic executive and judiciary.  It is the most influential lever of social change and can use persuasion, regulation, coercion and action. What can it do better this time?

Stubble burning and air quality has gone from bad to worse because of lack of public buy-in, absence of political will, lack of a stable policy ecosystem that promotes entrepreneurship for public problem solving and fragmented bureaucratic actions organized by departments instead of outcome. There is an underdeveloped research ecosystem for innovation and low coordination between judges, scientists and businesses, causing great public harm. The solution lies in dialogue on war-footing instead of monologues on the back-burner, where Occam’s razor takes precedence of Hanlon’s razor.

First, the Judiciary. The Supreme Court, National Green Tribunal and High Courts of north India can do citizens a great service by bringing scientific rigour, business viability and market sustainability as the central pivot for problem-solving. In an age where the judiciary is known for executive action, it can replicate its experiences from Covid-19, where industry was a key stakeholder in problem solving with vaccines (Bharat Biotech, Serum Institute) and oxygen (Inox, Linde) whilst renowned academics and doctors were consulted to understanding the multi-dimensional problem directly.

Similarly, for the respiratory crisis that is air pollution, the courts should consult public sector research organisations (IIT Delhi, IISc Bangalore, CSIR) and private think tanks (WRI, Clean Air Fund, Open Philanthropies) on air quality directly to solve this crisis created by misaligned incentives and improper policy design. This will help create concrete and implementable plans instead of promoting unscientific, cost-ineffective or unsustainable solutions like smog towers and mechanised sweeping. The current Chief Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, who has been amicus curiae in several pollution cases, and is in office till November 10, will spend his last few weeks in Delhi’s toxic air. He has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy on north India’s air quality if he were able to create a systematic, sustainable and scientific plan to monitor and evaluate solutions proposed in several orders of Supreme Court Writ Petition 13029.

Second, the government (and the legislature). Governments must find a way to implement multi-pronged solutions in an outcome-oriented manner, to treat the fundamental ailment, instead of treating the symptoms. North India’s executive-led legislatures, for example, must reconsider the legislative instruments (Preservation of Subsoil Water Acts) enacted in 2009, aimed at water conservation in Punjab and Haryana, which gave the government the power to define a precise date of the year before which farmers are prohibited from transplanting paddy. While seeking to reduce groundwater depletion, it has reduced the number of days available between the kharif and rabi crops, and created incentives to burn the stubble in order to rapidly clear the field. Each year over the last 13 years, the agrarian crisis gets worse through bad policy planning and implementation, leading to poor fertilizers, failing crops and falling incomes. Free electricity for agricultural pumps without boundary conditions or community disincentives, and excessive continuous reliance on paddy due to its MSP and history has made things worse for water, soil, crops, farmers and the state.

To solve for this Nemean Hydra, groundwater depletion needs to be tackled by creating ponds, rejuvenating lakes and cleaning rivers using natural treatment methods and people’s participation. Delhi’s model of lake rejuvenation and Sant Balbir Seechewal’s model of cleaning the Kali Bein rivulet can be mainstreamed inside the government to bring science and community together. A new model of agrarian electricity governance should be proposed that provides for two lines to be connected to each village, one for agricultural use and one for residential use. The village residential line, with 24 hours of electricity, can power homes. Free but metered and scheduled electricity can be provided for agricultural pumps for a few hours in a day on the agricultural line. These two lines should have strict usage norms with village-level disincentives and individual fines if abused. Simultaneously, the long-term policy and program on crop diversification to increase farmer incomes must be pursued with vigor, which can create a sustainable market in the agrarian economy that removes the need for coercive laws. This means promoting millets and mushrooms which are less water intensive through state policies and instruments like MSP, as also creating a market for green business alternatives for paddy straw through mulching, green energy, eco-cutlery, eco-friendly housing and composting to supplement farmer incomes by creating value from waste. All these executive programs would benefit immensely if individual legislators showed greater agency to bring executive projects and practices to fruition and success.

And finally, the bureaucracy. The iron frame of the bureaucracy has the scope for highest impact because they can work in the background and apolitically implement best practices from within and outside their state. District magistrates in Punjab and Haryana can learn from Pathankot, which was able to reduce farmer apprehension in using stubble as fodder for cattle by sharing best practices, innovative communication and creating market linkages between agriculturists and dairy farmers. In 2019, this led to no stubble fires in the district. Similarly, they could replicate and scale the prudent and practical work of the Kheti Virasat Mission on crop diversification conducted by them in Faridkot, in their own district. They could emulate Chhattisgarh’s Gauthan model of allowing composting on a 5-acre patch of barren land that enables social entrepreneurs and cooperatives to localise production and distribution of fertilizers using stubble as an input, again generating local value from local waste.

Senior bureaucrats in the government of India and state governments can connect disconnected silos of funds, plans and mandates to align disparate functions with common outcomes. If coordinated well, the Finance Commission grants for stubble burning reduction, pollution cess in states, CSR donations of private companies and philanthropic donations could be mobilized rapidly into a common air quality emergency fund to implement innovative solutions at scale. For example, it could use granular and fidelitous satellite data to implement outcome-driven payment of incentives to farmers and villages that don’t indulge in stubble burning. It could bring to life and catalyse existing central and state government mandates of using biomass, for fuelling power plants and industrial boilers, instead of coal that is currently prevented by organisational inertia and viability gap funding for decentralised or local solutions.

Public problem solving requires participation and action from private markets, civil society and academia. Science can frame and measure the problem better and with its help technology can expand the scope of potential solutions. Companies, CSR and philanthropies can bring rapid scale, viability and sustainability to these solutions. Civil society activists and citizens can bring individual and collective action in implementing these solutions with tenacity and passion. However, for that, the state must understand that it can’t solve this problem by itself. It can get by with a little help from its friends. Collaboration with competence with a base layer of compassion might be the only way that we can collectively breathe easy.

Roshan Shankar has been an advisor in the Delhi government since 2015.

Prasun Bansal holds degrees in mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering and management from IIT Delhi, Stanford and IIM-Ahmedabad respectively. Previously he has worked with NASA and Boeing.

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