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The Quest For Clean Air

Air pollution is costing lives. Too many of us are breathing dirty, toxic air and facing its direct consequences.

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I love food and I love cooking for others. Moments when I am appreciated for my dishes are the most beautiful and satisfying for me. My wife always says “people get nostalgic remembering the delicious dishes prepared by their mother when they eat something very great, but for me it’s the food made by my husband.” My friends presume that I was the chief ‘Khansama’ (chef) of Nawab Wajid Ali Khan in my previous life.

But when I am cooking, I am a worried person because I know the true story of the food ingredients I am using. Because I know what kind and quantities of pesticides and herbicides are applied on the crops. I know the condition of soils in farms and the fertilizers used to increase their productivity. I know how dangerous the food I serve to my dearest ones is. But what alternatives do I have? I feel I am trapped!

I have met thousands of farmers who know that agro-chemicals are slow but deadly poisons for soil, water, agro-ecology, cattle and themselves. They are well aware of the devastating impact of ever-increasing chemical inputs and its cost on their livelihoods. In fact, they are also aware of the solutions for this crisis but do not have the supportive and encouraging environment to move towards more remunerative and sustainable options. They feel equally trapped as I do. One of the biggest challenges the farmers face while shifting to organic farming methods is the non-availability of  biomass.

I am the father of a thirteen-year-old boy who is suffering from allergic sinusitis and bad air quality exaggerates his pain. Doctors say the only permanent cure to his sufferings is clean air. I feel sorry for him because most of the time he cannot play outdoors . But I can’t do much for him. I feel helpless!

Every year farmers from green revolution regions burn crop residues which leave air more polluted. They do it to clean their fields in order to sow the next crop. Two crops, wheat and rice, are purchased by the government on Minimum Support Price (MSP) due to which farmers get a better price for their crops. There is a small time window between the two crops. If they lose on time, they will lose on their livelihood. They burn the stubble even after knowing that the practice is increasing the cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases in their families and neighbourhoods. They do it knowing that it severely impacts soil organisms and soil health. However, the current suggested alternative to stubble burning costs farmers Rs. 2000-3000 per acre. Can we expect the farmers who are already reeling under the pressure of agrarian crisis to bear this extra burden? Is it morally correct? In 2015, the National Green Tribunal banned stubble burning so the practice is a crime now. Consequently, farmers are criminals now but the fact remains the same – they don’t have any viable alternative to the practice- they are equally helpless.

Can you see the irony? On one hand farmers are suffering from biomass availability crisis and on the other they are forced to burn crop residues? Everybody who knows anything about sustainable agriculture is well aware of the importance of mulching and presence of soil carbon in improving  soil health and trapping the problematic atmospheric carbon. Aren’t we allowing one of the most important resources to become a big problem by being burnt? Can we afford to remain comfortably complacent while continuing to blame farmers for the crisis? Shouldn’t we take charge and ask the government for systemic restructuring to bring a win-win solution for all? I have no reason to believe that we do not have experts and people who can give us real solutions. In fact, I would suggest we  initiate a process of knowledge co-creation with the concerned farmers, agri-experts and somebody with science background. The government should also be part of the process. This process could flow into solutions which are viable for the farmers, policy makers and the investors alike.

I strongly believe every problem has its solution in itself; we only need to look at it with a different mindset. And remember what Albert Einstein has said “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Ishteyaque Ahmed is a Senior Food for Life Campaigner at Greenpeace India.