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India's $230 mln plan to stop crop burning that pollutes Delhi falls short of estimates

By Neha Dasgupta and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The Indian government's plan
to spend $230 million over two years to prevent crop residue
burning is below the spending estimates of its policy advisors
for the task and may do little to cut the air pollution that
envelops the capital region of Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet is expected to sign
off on the plan as early as this month, three senior government
officials involved in the talks told Reuters.

The planned expenditure is far less than the $600 million
per year that NITI Aayog, a government policy advisory group,
estimated last November needed to be spent to prevent farmers
from burning the crop waste left over after harvesting. It was
not clear if the amount was recommended to the government.

Crop stubble burning caused one-quarter of the air pollution
that blanketed Delhi in November, the Ministry of Environment,
Forest and Climate Change told parliament last week. The
particles from the stubble burning combine with industrial
pollution, vehicle exhaust and dust to cover the region every
year as winter approaches and wind speeds drop.

The proposed plan would give money to farmers in three
states bordering Delhi - Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh - to
cover 80 percent of the cost of machinery to remove the crop
stubble, said the officials, who declined to be named ahead of
cabinet discussions on the matter. This would keep the farmers
from burning the residue ahead of winter planting.

"This is an important step but a lot will depend on how
quickly the scheme is rolled out at a scale that can make a
difference," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of
New Delhi-based think-tank the Centre for Science and
Environment.

The government officials said the funding can be raised if
needed but warned against expecting immediate results.

"We won't be able to improve more than 20 to 25 percent of
air quality even if the crop residue scheme is fully
implemented," acknowledged one of the government officials. "But
we have to accept that the efforts to clean Delhi's air will not
take less than five years."

Modi's office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Spokesmen for the farm and environment ministries declined to
comment.

In November, Delhi's pollution index climbed to 12 times
higher than the upper limit for healthy air. The air quality in
central Delhi on Wednesday morning remains "unhealthy" at more
than three times the limit, according to the United States
embassy in New Delhi.

Delhi was dubbed a "gas chamber" by its chief minister, and
the federal government was widely criticised after U.S.-based
United Airlines suspended flights to New Delhi because
of the pollution. Sri Lankan cricket players threw up on the
field during a match in the Indian capital last December.

Government officials have vowed to reduce the pollution.

"A strong message has to go down that pollution is a serious
economic and health issue and it is linked to our national image
too," Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan said at the launch of a
"Clean Air Campaign" last week. "We mean business now."

Farmers are welcoming the plan since the majority of them
cannot afford the machinery on their own.

"For farmers, the cost of most agricultural machineries are
prohibitive," said Kartar Singh, a farmer from Punjab. "And
that's why the subsidy will come as a relief to those who want
to buy modern harvesters and straw management machines."

U.S.-based John Deere and India's Mahindra & Mahindra
are some of the main sellers of farm machinery in
India.

Other plans to deal with the stubble include state electric
utility NTPC buying it to use as fuel in a coal-fired
power plant.
(Reporting by Neha Dasgupta and Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by
Krishna N. Das and Christian Schmollinger)

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