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Burning the Barrier: Capitalism at its Farmest

Why haven’t you purchased an electric car yet? Maybe it’s too expensive? Maybe you’re not ready for the change or the effort it takes? Maybe there’s not enough incentive? Or perhaps you’re worried it won’t be as efficient? According to the Delhi government, switching to electric cars could reduce 7.5% of India’s total carbon emissions, yet these reasons still prevent us from achieving the same.

The stubble burning conducted by the farmers from Punjab and Haryana is primarily blamed for the smoggy air in Delhi NCR during the winter months. Hence, in 2018, the central government implemented a subsidy on farming machinery like the ‘Happy Seeder’ and ‘Super Seeder’ to replace stubble burning for crop residue management. Yet, according to a study done by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 2019, there were still nearly 49,600 cases of stubble burning reported in Punjab as farmers met the subsidy with worries regarding added expenses, lack of trusted testimonials, lack of government incentive, and resistance to change, as seen in. Familiar reasons, indeed.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the overly smoggy air during Diwali isn’t solely or even primarily due to stubble burning. In 2021 the Centre stated that farm fires in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh contributed at most 4-10% of the pollution in Delhi, even in the winter months when the AQI peaks. Though one cannot deny that stubble burning does play a part in the same, the dense winter air along with the north-westerly winds from Punjab to Delhi trap and carry many external pollutants in them, dramatising the effect of the yearly farm fires. On the other hand, 28% of Delhi’s air pollution is due to transportation. Yet, the use of fossil fuel vehicles over sustainable electric options is not nearly as criticised as the farmer who opts for stubble burning over machinery in order to manage crop residue from their main source of income.

Such criticism stems, of course, from the media and discussions around us that largely blame the farmers. Yet, our acceptance of such information without questioning is heavily influenced by personal preconceived notions and biases, like how one may believe that farmers are poorly educated and hence are not aware or concerned about the environmental impact of stubble burning. However, talking to farmers in Patiala revealed that they are significantly worried about the effects of the same on their health and crop, with 75% of them mentioning that they wanted to shift to the more environmentally sustainable option but could not afford it.

Although in a developing economy like India’s, the agricultural sector is vital for the stability of the entire nation, high-income urban populations are so disassociated from the low-income rural strata (like most farmers) that it’s easy and almost intuitive to shift the blame for issues like pollution onto them and their means of production. Urban issues such as the resistance to switch to EVs instead seem trivial as the ‘common man’ from this class has not made the shift yet, thus making the behaviour seem excusable. However, the average wealthy urbanite is definitely not lighting their rooftop farm on fire, so farmers are rather alienated and condemned. Perhaps this ignorance of the true source of the problem is just another comfort for the privileged consumer in a capitalistic world; after all, such a divide between economic strata that fosters the formation of familiar in-groups and unfamiliar out-groups is a direct result of the unequal production and distribution of wealth and resources.

However, to some extent, the opposite is also true as farmers fall prey to capitalistic standards and believe their social status to be lower due to their lower economic status, thus leading to a sort of inferiority complex. Consequently, the farmers often distrust people of a higher economic status and therefore are close-minded when it comes to learning and applying more sustainable, urbanised crop management techniques from the government, focusing primarily on the complaints and how they shift the blame. Farmers may also be stuck in their old ways and mindsets, such as burning is supposedly better for the quality of their crops (which is untrue), hence hindering the switch to agricultural machinery.

Despite the government offering up to 80% subsidies on this machinery, along with basic training of operation free of cost, out of the farmers I interviewed, only 13% had used the subsidy. Such high subsidies significantly reduce the amount farmers must invest into such machinery, definitely more than the government is offering for any sort of electric vehicle as it is more of a luxury good, whereas being part of their livelihood, the shift to more sustainable crop residue removal strategies may be considered a responsibility and necessity rather than a choice for the farmers.

Stubble burning may not be the biggest source of Delhi’s air pollution, but it definitely is one– one that can be resolved by better, more effective government initiatives. For example, the government started an initiative to educate farmers about agricultural machinery but there was a lack of trust from the farmers. They felt as if the government was only starting these initiatives for their own public image and campaign. The Central Government can increase the number of trusted testimonials by farmers who have used the subsidy through workshops and campaigns to persuade fellow farmers and build community pressure to switch to mechanisation. Nudges can also be used to create positive reinforcement, like rewarding and recognizing the farmers and villages that used the subsidy the most.

Farmers’ reluctance to abandon stubble burning was primarily due to cost. Purchasing larger tractors needed to operate heavy equipment like the Happy Seeder is difficult for many small farmers due to low economies of scale. In Punjab, 60% of farmers have tractors with less than 45 horsepower, which is insufficient to operate the machinery. Increased financial assistance with the extra costs of using the machinery can be provided. 17% of survey respondents claimed that their reason for not adopting the more sustainable option was that there were simply not enough subsidised machines available. The government must push for widespread distribution of the machines for the scheme to be successful. These initiatives can not only help reduce stubble burning, but also increase farmers’ trust in the government, environmentalists, and even those from other economic strata.

Pollution in Delhi is a topic that has been discussed and debated several times, but a definitive cause and solution have yet to be discovered. However, one thing is certain, no matter our background, we can be more introspective and be aware of what part we play in the pollution, rather than always finding faults in others. We must prioritise the farmers’ perspectives to ensure their maximum utility as they are the key stakeholder and a primary contributor to our growing economy.

Tia Doshi
High School Student

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