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Issue 4

The Infamous Smog: Crop burning and much more

It’s that time of the year when the infamous smog once again chokes the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), reigniting old debates on crop-burning and its alternatives. Year after year, almost every newspaper prints scathing columns condemning the smog that settles in the region due to the burning of crop residue. Why do farmers continue to burn crops?

Crop burning occurs during the short period between the harvest of Kharif season and the sowing of Rabi season. This leaves the farmers with around 15 days to harvest their crop and get the field ready for the sowing of seeds. Innovations implemented as a result of the Green Revolution changed agricultural practices. Technological innovations brought in the new mechanized style of harvesting which uses the combined harvester—primarily aimed for rice and wheat—to harvest crops. After running this harvester through the field, the short and stiff residue is leftover.

Upon harvesting the grains, the leftover stubble is cleared. This was cleared manually or by having cattle graze on the field in the earlier days. The leftover residue then provided fuel and fodder for cattle and was used as a source of compost for the fields. Now, as labour costs continue to increase, the work done manually takes more time. Thus, stubble burning, which is a cheap and accessible method of clearing fields for the next season, has become the norm. This has been a major reason for the smog.

But is the smog caused solely due to crop burning by farmers? While there is some truth to the statement made by these columns that condemn crop burning, it remains somewhat simplistic. Unfortunately, this season also happens to collide with Diwali. The already polluted Delhi air is overburdened with the added pressure of multiple field fires, adding insult to injury. But Diwali isn’t the only contributing factor for the decline in air quality. 

As we get closer to winter, the temperature around this time is just starting to drop. We know that hot air, now filled with pollutants, rises. However, as elevation increases, the atmospheric temperature begins to drop due to the thinner atmosphere. At this point, where the temperature starts dropping in the atmosphere, the pollutants remain trapped, creating a shield that prevents the polluted air from rising any further. This causes the pollutants to remain in the air that we breathe, creating smog. The lack of strong winds in the region during this time of the year is also a significant contributing factor and results in the pollutants being suspended in the air.

One can interpret the smog to be the result of the intersection of various unfavourable factors including geography, climatic conditions, industrial and capitalist processes, technology, illiteracy, need, desperation and perhaps, the lack of adequate alternatives.

As a solution, governments have gone from levying heavy taxes on farmers and passing an ordinance for a 20-member committee to tackle air pollution in the NCR. However, stringent laws and harsh punishments rarely, if ever, act as preventive measures. In our present situation, creating committees is simply a redundant act of pushing the burden of accountability on a different set of shoulders.

The recurring smog is battled with feeble water spray machines, air purifiers and masks. In reality, these are all but preventive, and we may have misunderstood the problem at its root for a significantly long time. The introduction of specialized agricultural machines, subsidies and loans along with strict laws are but mitigating factors. None of which consider the long-term health of agriculturists, consumers, soil health, accessibility and soil toxicity—all which are significant and yet not spoken about. To battle pollution arising out of crop residue burning, we must first arrive at a clear understanding of the problem. Dedicated research, trials and increase in government support in agriculture are key to arriving at a robust solution for this problem.

Given these “solutions”, our future seems but a foggier rendition of the present and the past. Policies aimed at diversification of crops grown will help us take a step towards a long-term solution to the adverse effect of the pollution arising from crop burning. However, battling smog does not end here, industrial pollutants demand a more complex approach which is beyond the scope of this article.

A possible solution could be to replace monocultures in favour of polycultures. Diversification of the regions where these crops are grown could also help. Creating policies favouring state-sponsored labour, or perhaps changing the kind of seeds we use. 

Various complexities drive the problem of pollution in India. One may trace the roots back to the green revolution, maybe even condemn it. But the truth of the matter is that we must rethink the industrial model of agriculture that is rampantly in practice today. We must rethink agriculture.

Hiteshi Ajmera is a student of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Photograph by Neil Palmer, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).