Stubble burning: Giving financial aid for farmers a tough task for Punjab

Amount being demanded by Punjab’s paddy farmers would mean a dole out of over Rs 2,000 crore
Punjab’s precarious finances have put Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s government in a spot as it battles criticism over its failure to stop stubble burning — a leading cause of the catastrophic pollution witnessed in Delhi and adjoining areas. 

“We had asked for Rs 3,000 an acre or Rs 200 for every quintal of paddy so that we could employ more people to uproot the stubble after harvesting the crop. So far, farmers haven’t received anything. Instead, the government is asking us to buy machines costing lakhs of rupees at subsidised prices,” said Harinder Lakhowal, general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.

In many ways, Amarinder Singh’s government, which had already placed the state’s Budget under tremendous pressure through farm loan waivers, may find it hard to bring the matter under control.

First, the amount being demanded by Punjab’s paddy farmers would mean a dole out of over Rs 2,000 crore — a hard task for a state, the fiscal condition of which has been classified as “critical” by the NITI Aayog. In 2018-19, Punjab’s debt stood at Rs 2.12 trillion or 40 per cent of its GSDP. The NITI Aayog in a December 2018 report stated: “Punjab’s debt and deficit situation will remain precarious in the absence of strong fiscal measures. Our analysis of Punjab’s future debt (2016–17 to 2036–37) at the aggregate and disaggregate level suggests that its debt is weakly sustainable. From the scenario analysis, it was observed that adverse economic shocks such as a rise in the real interest rate can steadily increase the debt/gross domestic product ratio of the state. Shocks of a more permanent nature can render the state into macroeconomic instability.”

Second, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in its 2015 order asked states to provide machines like happy seeders, the market price which is around Rs 1.5 lakh, free to farmers having holdings of less than 2 acres. Those with a landholding of 2-5 acres would be charged Rs 5,000, while those with even bigger farms were to be provided happy seeders for Rs 15,000. In effect, the richest of farmers in Punjab were expected to be subsidised by the state government by bearing 90 per cent of its cost — again a tough proposition given the state’s finances. The chief minister was reported to have said his government had provided 28,000 such machines in 2018. 

The state’s finances aren’t the only reason for such low penetration of these machines. Punjab’s farmers see little sense in subsidy for high-cost machines like happy seeders. “We have a one-month window between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat during October-November. We cannot sow wheat properly with happy seeders as paddy straws aren’t completely uprooted. Rats eat the seeds and the risk of crop failure is high. For farmers with small landholdings, these machines are practically useless. Most tractors we use are 20 horsepower. To use happy seeders, you need a tractor with at least 50 horsepower,” said Lakhowal.  

Third, the Punjab government acting on the NGT’s order has sporadically imposed fines on those found to be burning stubble. But many who have been fined have refused to pay. Many others have paid the fine because the quantum of these fines hasn’t been a deterrent against crop burning. The NGT had ordered imposition of fines ranging from Rs 2,500 to Rs 15,000 depending on the size of a farmer’s landholding. Farmers claim that it costs them less to burn the stubble and pay the fine than buy, store and maintain machines that serve little purpose. Amarinder Singh recently said his government received complaints against 20,729 farmers this year and fined 2,923 of them. Any wide-scale imposition of fines could be a political landmine for the Congress in Punjab — one of the few states where the party put up a decent show in the general election. 

In a state that is being seen as the primary contributor to Delhi’s hazardous post-Diwali air, farmers’ resistance, fiscal compulsions, administrative recalcitrance, and political calculations all seem to have contributed to putting three state governments, the central government and Delhi’s 19 million residents in a toxic situation.

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