Days after the Indian government’s economic survey highlighted the effects of pollution and climate change, finance minister Arun Jaitley, presenting the union budget on Thursday, announced a special programme to address the problem of stubble burning in farmlands in and around the national capital of Delhi.

Burning of crop residue by farmers in Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh is widely thought to be the reason behind the smog that engulfs Delhi NCR during winters, increasing the particulate matter in the air that causes respiratory diseases. On Thursday, presenting his last full budget before the 2019 general election, Jaitley announced that the government would subsidise the machinery required for in-situ management of crop residue. He, however, did not mention the amount earmarked for the project.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment, a for-public-interest research and advocacy organisation, says the initiative will help reduce the “episodic air winter pollution”, but emphasises early implementation to avoid a repeat during 2018 winters. She says if machines and technology to remove and dispose off crop residue are easily available to the farmers, “there is no reason why they will not use it”.

The economic survey, tabled in parliament on Monday, said factors like vehicular emissions, construction, winter temperature inversion, and crop residue and biomass burning contribute to the situation that gave Delhi the moniker of “the smog capital of the world”. But biomass burning contributes 26% to 29% of air pollution, the survey said.

Solutions such as ‘Happy Seeder’, a tractor-mounted machine that removes crop straw and helps convert it to mulch, are already available in the Indian market, but its sticker price of around Rs 1 lakh discourages widespread adoption.

Typically, farmers use harvesting machines that leave about 15-inch-long stalk in the field. Since removing this residual stalk manually is costly and labour intensive, farmers often resort to burning it. As the economic survey puts it: “It is more economic for the farmers to just burn by using one rupee match box and clear the fields”.

Roychowdhury suggested Jaitley should not have restricted his focus to Delhi NCR and should have tackled air pollution as a national programme. “They should have treated air pollution as a national problem. Government should have specified money for national clean air action plan,” she said.

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