Fighting pollution: Will there be fewer farm-fires this year?

October 23, 2020 7:15 AM

Paddy-related factors—overall acreage, land under basmati, and under direct seeded rice—are encouraging. But, alternative use of residue may not improve much over the past, and adoption of Happy Seeder etc would have been wider if govt aid had come before the harvest

Stubble burning has started in Haryana and Punjab, which contributes significantly to the rise in pollution levels in Delhi and the National Capital Region.The daily fire counts are still less than 1,500.

By Karthik Ganesan & Tanushree Ganguly

The pandemic-induced economic lockdown this summer, followed by the monsoons, helped residents in cities across the Indo-Gangetic plain experience extended periods of clean air. Much of the increase in pollution levels since the lockdown ended is from local sources. According to an analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), satellites have observed 9,000+ fires in the period between September 1 and October 20. Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana contributes to ~20% of Delhi’s post-monsoon PM2.5 concentration. Given the increasing evidence of poor air quality exacerbating the burden of Covid-19, this year’s crop burning cycle assumes special significance.

We are already in the third week of October, a week away from the peak stubble burning window (late October and early November). The daily fire counts are still less than 1,500. During the peak, there are as many as 4,000 fires a day. The onset of winter, north-westerly winds, and unfavourable meteorological conditions for pollution dispersion compound the impact of stubble burning on air quality in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

As has been the case every year so far, planning for the season started too late; whatever solace possible, lies in processes and mechanisms already in place. The farm reform laws have been a major distraction this year, with unrest in the farmer community taking attention away from the need to tackle the crop-residue problem. CEEW’s analysis shows higher fire counts in Punjab earlier in the season compared to previous years. But does this imply higher fire counts throughout the season? To answer this, we review three factors that have a bearing on the number of fire incidents—the area under rice cultivation, the penetration of farm implements, and the market for crop residue.

First, the area under rice cultivation this year is lower compared to the previous years. The area under paddy is nearly 10% lower than it was in 2018. This year, nearly 25% of the area is under basmati, which yields softer, low-silica residue and can get utilised as animal fodder. Unlike previous years, 20% of the land is under Direct Seeded Rice (DSR), which is expected to mature 8-10 days before traditionally transplanted rice. This provides farmers with a longer time window to manage residue using alternative methods and could result in lower fires in the peak period.

Second, the number and types of implements that are available to manage crop-residue within the field have increased. These include the Happy Seeder, MB plough, Super Seeder, rotavator, mulcher, etc. There are subsidies on many of these implements, and the state government is also looking at scaling up the number of custom hiring centres. While the increased availability provides hope for increased utilisation, not all implements are cost-effective solutions. Perhaps, the disbursal of the promised compensation for farmers that don’t burn residue prior to the harvest could have increased the uptake of implements.

The third factor, putting crop residue to economically beneficial end-uses, offers only a sliver of hope. As per government records, the utilisation of crop residue by all end-users, including thermal power plants, biomass gasifiers, cardboard and paper mills stood at 1.1 million tonnes in 2018 (~5% of total residue). Earlier this year, National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC Ltd) floated a tender for procurement of up to 6 million tons of biomass pellets to co-fire its coal-based power plants. Conversations with leading biomass aggregators suggest that, this year, the utilisation of crop residue is not likely to show a significant rise, despite the ambition shown by users such as NTPC. One reason for this is the high costs associated with transporting crop-residue (densified or otherwise) over longer distances that reduce the attractiveness of biomass against coal.

The biggest wild card, which we have not accounted for, is meteorological factors. Unseasonal rainfall can lead to bunching up of burning incidents resulting in more peak burning days and perhaps even alter residue management practices. Meteorology also has the ability to exacerbate or abate the impact of any level of burning—locally and downstream.

Given the facts at hand, we believe that this year should see lower levels of burning and more spread out burning. For the final outcome, sitting here in Delhi, we will wait with bated breath.

(Ganesan is a research fellow, and Ganguly a programme associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Views are personal)

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