I walk out to the balcony to see a dirty haze looming overhead, too thick to allow the watery rays of the November sun to seep through. All the promises of a green, or at least greenish, Diwali seem to have fallen flat, I muse. The papers are full of news of the poor quality of Delhi's air, attributing it partly to the practice of burning crop waste in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. It reminds me of the time when we lived in Mirzapur, where after the harvest, the roads were often flanked by burning fields.
After Dussehra one night in Mirzapur, we found ourselves on a narrow road with burning crop waste on either side. The flames were high, the smoke intense. Within a few minutes, my eyes and throat were burning from the acrid smoke. A lone figure was visible across the blaze, using long sticks to prod the flames. It looked and smelled, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, hellish. We drove away as fast as we could that night, and a few days later, when I was passing the same way, I stopped to survey the results of that night's burning. The fields were bare, blackened with soot. A farmer was relaxing on a charpoy under a singed tree, and I stopped to ask him about the burning of crop stubble.
"Burning is the quickest and most efficient way we know of to clear our fields of the harvested crop," he said. "Since few of us, who own small fields, can afford to hire labour, this week we've all burnt the last of the paddy crop we had planted during the rains." The resulting ash fertilised the soil, he explained, and cleared the field so it could be made ready for planting mustard, the winter crop. Could they not, I asked, handle crop waste in other ways, for example by chopping it up to use as mulch or tilling it into the soil? "To mulch it, we'd need to uproot the plants and chop them up fine," he said. "If only I had that kind of time, money and man power! I manage this field singlehandedly, and just don't have the luxury." Also, after having been flooded for the paddy crop through the monsoon, the soil in the fields there had become too tightly compacted to allow for easy tillage, he said. It also cut down on soil diseases and killed weed seeds without the farmers having to use pesticides.
Over the years, I listened to many other arguments in support of crop waste burning being a cheap and efficient agricultural practice, from the notion that fire heated the soil to the optimum sowing temperature to the idea that the dark ash helped the soil to better absorb the rays of the sun. However, the only argument I understood even as I coughed and sneezed through the crop burning season, was that managing their waste in any other way would cost farmers money that most of them could ill-afford.
This is why today, when I read of the rising cry for a ban (as if we don't have enough of them) on crop waste burning, I remember the lone farmer stoking the fire on a dark night in Mirzapur. What would he do if he weren't allowed to burn his waste? In the absence of any other choice and waste management resources, I feel confident that people like him would pay no heed to any such ban, if it were imposed. It would be infinitely more constructive to lend farmers a hand in dealing with crop waste rather than banning the fires. They'd probably be happier with this approach. So would our lungs, I'm sure.