As the air quality in Delhi-NCR hovered between 'severe' and 'very poor' category, a top agriculture ministry official on Tuesday mooted crop diversification and shift to a short duration paddy crop to reduce stubble burning in northern states that has been primarily blamed for pollution during winter months.
The pollution situation in northern India was also reviewed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a day after the Supreme Court ordered an immediate and complete stop to stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh blamed for 46 per cent of the pollution in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR).
The top court did some tough-talking and had warned that the administration at large will be made accountable even if there is a single incident of stubble burning henceforth.
It issued a slew of directions that also included stopping all construction and demolition activities as well as garbage and waste burning in Delhi-NCR till further orders.
As authorities considered various options to put an end to stubble burning, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said conversion of stubble to fertilisers can be a permanent solution while the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) called for promoting crop diversification and a shift to a short duration paddy crop.
All India Bhartiya Kisan Union Coordinator Yudhvir Singh said farmers will take time to switch to other crops but the government should promote crop diversification by providing some incentive.
The Centre should take the paddy stubble from Punjab and distribute it as animal feed to 3 lakh stray cattle in Uttar Pradesh, he suggested.
Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar told the state Assembly that the government was giving facilities to farmers so that they don't burn stubble.
"We distributed 10,000 machines last year while 15,000 machines have been distributed this year, on which we are giving 80 per cent subsidy."
He said setting fire to crop residues was responsible only for 18-20 per cent of the pollution problem, adding incidents of crop burning in Haryana have significantly come down over the past few days and the situation was much better now.
"As per NASA satellite imagery and Haryana Space Applications Centre, the (stubble burning) problem looks very little in Haryana," he said.
Several opposition members including Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh Hooda said in the name of pollution, farmers were being blamed and defamed.
"The AQI is back to 'very poor' category after rapidly recovering from 'severe' largely due to faster boundary layer winds (40 kmph)." said the Ministry of Earth Sciences' air quality monitor, SAFAR.
Though Haryana and Punjab recorded 4,962 farm fires, the season's highest, on Monday and north westerly winds, which carry smoke from stubble burning, continued to blow, Delhi air quality's 'continued to recover', it said.
'PM Narendra Modi chaired a meeting in which the situation arising due to pollution in various parts of northern India was discussed,' the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) tweeted.
The meet on pollution followed back-to-back review meetings held by P K Mishra, the principal secretary to the prime minister, with top officials of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana on Sunday and Monday.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi's air quality index dropped from 365 at 9.45 am to 331 at 3.45 pm on Tuesday.
In the NCR, Greater Noida (348), Noida (358), Ghaziabad (351), Faridabad (311) and Gurgaon (328) also recorded improvement in air quality.
An AQI between 0-50 is considered 'good', 51-100 'satisfactory', 101-200 'moderate', 201-300 'poor', 301-400 'very poor' and 401-500 'severe'. An AQI above 500 falls in the 'severe plus' category.
NRAA CEO Ashok Dalwai said state governments should educate farmers to shift to non-paddy crops by providing some incentives
"One solution is to grow short-duration paddy varieties. If we are able to harvest by September, then farmers will get a longer window to undertake proper harvesting and prepare the land for wheat sowing," Dalwai told PTI.
At present, the window for paddy harvesting is around 20-25 days, putting pressure on farmers to get rid of the crop residue and prepare the land for sowing wheat.
On top of it, they are facing a labour shortage, he said.
Since Punjab has low groundwater levels and paddy being a water-guzzling crop, Dalwai said, "It is better we shift from paddy cultivation and grow more water-efficient crops like oilseeds and maize. That would solve the problem."
He also said short-duration varieties of non-paddy crops should be encouraged as the concern for farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is to prepare the land for winter wheat.
Dalwai, also chairman of the Committee on Doubling of Farmers' Income, further said: "We can easily shift from paddy in wheat-growing states as paddy can be grown in many other areas in the country.
"Whereas wheat cannot be grown everywhere as winter is required. So, wheat cannot be compromised. That has to be here. So, we can look at an alternative for paddy in north India."
Stating that the country has many short-duration paddy varieties, Dalwai said, "We need to promote them. One needs to look at yields level to encourage farmers to shift. This is not something impossible to do. We can always test these varieties and do it."
He also suggested the state governments can provide an incentive to shift to other crops.