The farmers' year-long undiluted agitation against the three federal farm laws has evoked support from almost all Opposition parties in India and a section of the news media. But the umbrella agitation has also, time and again, thrown up a variety of demands that are unrelated to the contentious legislation.
One such condition to call off the agitation has been to amend pollution control laws and legalise parali (or stubble burning), a process that has so many downsides and only a short-term economic gains for the farmer that even Supreme Court has asked for a law to ban the practice.
"They can easily take action on the parali [stubble burning] issue, and direct the Pollution Board to make changes to exempt farmers. Let them do it," Yudhvir Singh, general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union-Tikait had told The Hindu last year when farmers still held out some hope with government negotiations.
This is especially problematic as whole of North-West India, especially cities such as Delhi have faced severe air pollution in the last many years, with spikes in early winter due to the practice of stubble burning by some farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh.
The farmers' insistence to continue burning parali also hinders other citizens' constitutional right to life and health under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Supreme Court in the case of MC Mehta (Stubble burning and Air Quality) versus Union of India, (2020) 7 SCC 530, has observed that stubble burning causes a serious kind of pollution which threatens the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution of India.
A study estimates that crop residue burning released 149.24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), over 9 million tonnes of carbon monoxide (CO), 0.25 million tonnes of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 million tonnes of particulate matter and 0.07 million tonnes of black carbon.
These directly contribute to environmental pollution and are also responsible for the haze in Delhi and melting of Himalayan glaciers.
In light of such a tortious act, the Hon'ble Supreme Court had issued directions to the Chief Secretaries of the State of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and NCT of Delhi, including panchayats and administrative authorities, to ensure stubble burning does not take place.
Considering the precarious situation and the directions of the Supreme Court, allowing the demand of the so-called farmers leaders to burn crop as a matter of right is an unrestricted and blatant violation of the fundamental right to life of all residents of the NCR-Delhi region.
The protestors camping at the borders of Delhi have demanded that laws against stubble burning be watered down and they be kept out if its ambit.
The national capital's air quality was reported in the "very poor" category with stubble burning contributing 40 percent to Delhi's pollution even in last winter, according to a government forecasting agency.
Delhi's Health Minister Satyendar Jain even attributed the high Covid-19 death rate in the city to pollution caused by stubble burning, and said a downward trend is expected in the next two-three weeks.
Despite multiple efforts made by state and central governments -- state has appointed over 8,000 nodal officers to monitor field fires while Centre has released Rs 496 cr this month to subsidize machinery that replaces stubble burning -- parali has only been on the rise in Punjab.
The state recorded a total of 50,590 fire incidents in 2018, which went up to 55,210 in 2019 and 76,582 in 2020. Within three years, there was a rise of over 26,000 fire incidents. In 2017, 45,384 stubble fires were recorded in the state.
In fact, Punjab had over 76,000 stubble management machines till last year, and over 19,000 custom hiring centres of these machines, but nodal officials could not mobilise farmers to use these in their full capacity due to financial costs associated with these alternatives and immense resistance from land-holder farmers.
Farmers resort to burning of crop residue due to the short time window available to sow the next wheat crop. Traditionally, older farmers in Punjab and Haryana recall, very little paddy was sown as wheat, not rice, is the staple diet in the region. However, with the advent of the Green Revolution, a rice-wheat crop rotation has become the norm, under which specialised short-duration varieties were introduced.
Rice is grown between June and October, followed by wheat from November to April. Any delay in sowing of wheat adversely affects crop yield. As farmers get barely 20-25 days between the two crops, the easiest way to clear the field is burning the crop residue instead of the more time-consuming mechanical route. Which is also quite expensive, say farmers.