Delhi Pollution : Supreme Court Suggests Excluding Farmers Burning Stubble From Minimum Support Price

Awstika Das

21 Nov 2023 10:55 AM GMT

  • Delhi Pollution : Supreme Court Suggests Excluding Farmers Burning Stubble From Minimum Support Price

    The Supreme Court on Tuesday (November 21) suggested excluding farmers burning their stubble from the purview of the minimum support price (MSP) infrastructure, as a part of a carrot-and-stick policy to disincentivise stubble burning in Punjab and other states adjacent to Delhi. It also recommended completely subsidising baling machines for poor farmers and financing their operating costs...

    The Supreme Court on Tuesday (November 21) suggested excluding farmers burning their stubble from the purview of the minimum support price (MSP) infrastructure, as a part of a carrot-and-stick policy to disincentivise stubble burning in Punjab and other states adjacent to Delhi. It also recommended completely subsidising baling machines for poor farmers and financing their operating costs to convert stubble into a useful byproduct that could then be sold for a profit by the state government. 

    A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia was hearing a batch of pleas raising concerns over the deteriorating air quality in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR). The region typically faces heightened pollution during the winter months, largely due to factors such as stubble burning in neighbouring states.

    In October, the court directed the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) to submit a report detailing the steps taken to tackle the worsening air quality in and around the national capital. Later in the same month, the commission submitted its report implicating stubble burning as a leading cause of air pollution in Delhi, following which the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi were directed to outline the measures adopted to combat air pollution, particularly concerning crop burning.

    Earlier this month, the court came down heavily on the governments of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, and UP, asking them to immediately stop stubble burning. The court entrusted the responsibility of enforcing this ban to the local state house officer, under the supervision of the chief secretary to the governments and the police chief of the respective states. Not only this, but it also urged a re-evaluation of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009 in view of its adverse effect on pollution, and stressed the need to phase out cultivation of paddy of a concerning variety in Punjab.

    On the last occasion, the court expressed renewed concerns over the raging farm fires in the states adjacent to Delhi, particularly Punjab, urging the governments to come up with emergency measures to douse the fires now and longer-term measures for crop replacement in a phased manner and to encourage crops that do not leave behind stubble that will require burning, including alternative varieties of paddy. An ideal policy would involve a monetary incentive as well as a punitive element, the bench indicated, but left it to the wisdom of the executive. 

    "We want farm fires stopped, we want air quality to get better, and we want long-term measures for crop replacement. You do it however you want. We are not saying follow this solution or that," the court categorically told the state and union governments, before leaving it to them to find a solution. "If you don't, we'll summon the chief secretaries and keep them here till they find a solution. I'm sure they'll work better in their own offices, so please find a solution," Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul warned.

    At the outset of today's hearing, Punjab Advocate-General Gurminder Singh urged the court to direct an 'action-oriented' timeline to be fixed so that the mitigation measures may be adopted before the onset of the next season. He also apprised the bench of the steps taken by the Punjab government to tackle the raging farm fires, saying -

    "We have collected about two crore rupees as environmental damages from farmers who are still violating the orders. We have created 618 red entries which debars farmers from taking benefits in their jamabandis. Almost 1000 FIRs have been lodged. As of yesterday, there is a protest on the roads...They are blocking people from accessing the fields to put out the fires. This is a law and order situation and we are dealing with it. We are going and extinguishing fires, even at midnight. As of yesterday, six districts in the state went completely fire-free."

    "I'm thinking out loud," Justice Kaul mused, "Why should any purchase be made under the minimum support price system from people violating the orders and lighting fires, regardless of how this affects the people, the children? The stick must also follow the carrot. Why should people who, despite all observations of the court, despite counselling, continue violating the law be allowed to benefit monetarily? People who have been identified as having lit fires should not be allowed to sell their products under this system. There should be something that pinches. It's not about one state or the other, or the union. Let's not get politics into this."

    Justice Dhulia also chimed in with his suggestion to disallow farmers who have been identified as having burnt their stubble, from growing rice. "It's a suggestion. Because the MSP policy cannot be done away with. It's a sensitive issue. You can only pick persons, but you cannot do it as a policy perhaps."

    At the same time, Justice Dhulia acknowledged the unique circumstances that compelled farmers to burn the stubble, remarking, "The farmer is being made a villain. And he is not being heard. He must have some reasons for burning the stubble..."

    Attorney-General R Venkataramani agreed that the minimum support price policy was a complex issue, but hesitated over the idea of a radical overhaul. The court clarified that it was only offering suggestions that the cabinet secretary's committee could examine after receiving inputs from various state governments, while leaving the actual policy decision to executive wisdom. Justice Kaul explained -

    "What concerns me is that the land in Punjab is becoming arid slowly because the water table is getting depleted. If the land runs dry, everything else will get affected. Somewhere the farmers should understand or be made to understand the consequences of growing paddy. How it will happen, the economics of it, we are not experts. Mr Attorney, please explore whether and how you can discourage the cultivation of paddy, and encourage the growing of any alternative crop. It is for you to work out the mechanism. You cannot say rice will continue to grow, the land will continue to run dry, and no water will be left there because the MSP aspect is complex...because you do not want to displease some groups of people. Bluntly, the state government and the union government must forget the politics of it and apply their minds to see how to stop paddy cultivation. If the blame game continues..."

    "Delhi will continue to suffer," interjected Aparajita Singh, amicus curiae and senior advocate. "Nothing is complex, Your Lordships. If they want to do it, they will do it."

    Notably, the court also pointed to the disparity in the landholding sizes to explain that larger farmers profited by selling bales made out of stubble through a mechanised process, while smaller farmers found it difficult to make the initial capital investment of buying baling machines. The amicus curiae, in this connection, asked whether the Punjab government had established custom hiring centres (CHC), which are units comprising a set of farm machinery, implements and equipment meant to be hired, in particular, by impoverished farmers. She also asked, "Are they loaning the equipment for free?"

    In response, AG Singh said that the central government provided equipment to farmers at a subsidy of 80 per cent. "In addition to the 20 percent that they have to pay, the farmer also finds it hard to bear the operating cost, including manpower and diesel. To address this, we suggested last time that we could all club our resources in ratio of 3:1:1. This is also mentioned in our affidavit..."

    After hearing these submissions, Justice Kaul suggested offering the machinery to smaller farmers completely free of cost, taking the bales, and then selling them. "If larger farmers can do it, I'm sure the state government also can. By utilising the stubble and selling the byproduct, you can recover what you have paid for the machines."

    The advocate general, however, pointed out, "The returns for these paddy straws, which are as a matter of policy, being used as fuel, are minimal. Some sort of central subsidy would be required."

    "I have some knowledge about this. I'm telling you, the larger farmers are also profiting off this part of their enterprise," Justice Kaul insisted before adding that the only problem the smaller farmers faced was their inability to finance the machinery and the operations. Justice Dhulia added -

    "Why do you not make it 100 percent free? To burn it, all he needs to do is light a matchstick, done. The machine is not everything. Even if you give the machine for free, there's diesel cost, manpower...Let everything be free. Even after that, if the farmer burns his stubble, then..."

    "Let the cabinet secretary consider this issue in the next meeting. Our contribution will be forthcoming," AG Singh responded.

    Ultimately, the bench pronounced,

    "A report filed by the State of Punjab suggests that 8,481 meetings have been held with farmers and farm leaders to convince them to not burn paddy straws by station house officers. There are 1,092 flying squads constituted. However, the upward trend in farm fires has not abated. 984 FIRs have been lodged, and on our query, the learned advocate general states that they have been registered against landowners. 618 red entries are stated to have been made in the revenue records. Environmental compensation amounting to more than Rs 2 crores has been imposed of which Rs 18 lakhs has been recovered. The remaining amount should also be recovered.

    ...Learned amicus curiae has flagged the issue arising out of a 2019 order directing custom hiring centres to be constituted to facilitate the availability of machines for marginal farmers. It is submitted that this has been implemented in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, but there is no data placed on record by the State of Punjab on this behalf. It is pointed out from the status report of the Centre that insofar as Punjab is concerned, the number of machines is 1,28,378 and the number of CHCs is 25,417.

    ...Learned amicus curiae has pointed out that for the purchase of machinery, there is a subsidy of 50 percent for farmers, and 80 percent for cooperatives. She has, however, clarified that as far as custom hiring centres are concerned, the machinery is free for marginal farmers. Learned advocate general flagged the issue that even if the machinery is given for free, there are operating costs. We put to the learned advocate general why the state cannot fund these aspects and utilise the byproduct which would generate funds at least enough for the purposes of providing the subsidies. We say so because there are farmers operating on different economic scales where they are able to gain a profit even out of this byproduct by the use of these machines.

    The State of Punjab will also take a cue from the endeavours made by the State of Haryana in the manner in which financial incentives are given as set out in the central government's report."

    Repeating its earlier warning against continued paddy cultivation, the bench added, "In our belief, the committee must look into the aspect of discouraging the cultivation of rice, especially on account of the water required for it, and the wells running dry in Punjab. The long-term impact could be disastrous. Thus, persons concerned must put their heads together to see how to encourage a switch over to alternative crops."

    Case Details

    MC Mehta v. Union of India & Ors. | Writ Petition (Civil) No. 13029 of 1985

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