As a network working on sustainable farm livelihoods, the following is our analysis, mainly keeping farmers and stubble burning in mind.
1. Air quality, or conversely, air pollution is not majorly related to straw or stubble burning in agriculture. There are other factors that are contributing more significantly. Moreover, seen from the vantage point of farmers, straw burning or stubble burning is not just about air pollution, but about natural resources like soil being destroyed which in turn affect farm livelihoods and this phenomenon is directly correlated to farm economics getting adverse, other than inappropriate technologies being thrust onto farmers and labour constraints being created in the modern agricultural paradigm of monocropped intensive farming. Stubble burning is in fact a matter of farmers’ livelihood resources getting degraded, their economics becoming adverse and their health being directly affected, and unless it is tackled as such, farmers themselves are not going to engage in the solutions to the problem, even if the Ordinance mentions “participatory approaches” without meaning the same. This should be tackled to ensure that farm livelihoods are made sustainable.
2. The Ordinance however appears to make stubble burning the main factor and in that sense, farmers the culprits. In the long Preamble section to the Ordinance, stubble burning finds the first mention to the exclusion of industrial emissions initially! Under the Functions of the Commission (Sec. 12 (7) (d), stubble burning finds three different mentions, without the other more significant factors finding a mention!
3. The Ordinance route for setting up the Commission is highly questionable. There is no reason why this could not have awaited a Parliament session being convened when the Winter Session is not far away. Taking the Ordinance route for usurping centralised authority, violating the federal polity has become the norm for law-making and this is seriously objectionable. Apart from stomping on the state governments’ constitutional authority on agriculture and other matters, this Ordinance also weakens other legislations without quite repealing them (this, despite its talk of not being in derogation of other laws). This will in effect weaken the Environment Protection Act 1986 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981 for instance, given that the enforcement and monitoring agencies under such extant statutes will wait for such Ordinances whenever they abdicate their responsibility. Sec. 12(6) gives the Commission overarching powers and violates federal spirit.
4. The Ordinance gives powers to the Commission to take measures to abate air pollution, and to regulate or prohibit activities that are likely to cause or increase air pollution, and issue directions for closure, prohibition or regulation of any operation or process which could obviously include agricultural operations in addition to stoppage of services like water and electricity (Sec. 12 (2) (xii) (a) and (b)). This has implications for agricultural operations which directly impact many livelihoods.
5. The Penalties specified for “non compliance” and contraventions do not have any nuanced understanding of possible offences, and club them all together without any categorisation into major and minor offences, to be penalised with upto 5 years in jail or fine upto one crore rupees or both. Will this be applicable to a non-landowning tenant marginal farmer who is compelled to take up stubble burning for some unavoidable reasons, for example?
6. Sec.17 makes National Green Tribunal as the only appeal mechanism and Sec. 18 places a bar of jurisdiction of civil courts, making justice inaccessible for the ordinary citizen/farmer.
7. There are no farmer representatives in the Commission, even though stubble burning is projected as a major factor of air pollution (Sec. 2) even as representative of association of commerce and industry has been included apart from the concerned Ministry rep.
8. While the Ordinance makes mention of “participatory approaches” and “democratically monitored mechanisms” and so on, it is ironical that the Ordinance is anything but that.
We object to the notification of this Ordinance without any widespread consultations, and are concerned that this would potentially criminalise farmers, when they are actually the victims of an agricultural paradigm thrust on them in the name of development and food security. We believe that Supreme Court-driven processes (one-person or more) are not the way forward either.
The issue of stubble burning can indeed be addressed, by proper incentives to farmers, both cultivation and price/procurement incentives including for diversified cropping, in addition to provision and promotion of sustainable solutions at the farm level in terms of practices, small machinery and through integrated farming systems approaches. Importantly, the solutions have to draw from farmers’ experiences, knowledge and skills. This requires continuous conversations with them and better coordination between all concerned authorities in addition to peer-to-peer extension.