From Plate to Plough: Harvesting solar to breathe easy

Pushing the northern states’ farmers away from rice and incentivising solar power generation as an ‘alternative crop’ can help clean up Delhi’s air

For replacing coal in power generation, solar and wind is the way to go at all-India level

When I was born into this world, I thought I had a right to breathe fresh air provided free by nature. But being born and brought up in Delhi, I now feel that fresh air has become a luxury, which I can avail only for a few days in a year. For the rest, I have to gasp for fresh air. My life span is already cut short by almost three years by polluted air, as per medical experts. And if business as usual continues, millions in the National Capital Region (NCR) will be choking as it turns into a ‘gas chamber’.

Supreme Court (SC) judges have rightly pulled up the Delhi and Central government for not doing enough to correct this dire situation. They also remarked what message we are sending to the world. If one looks at the capitals of G20 countries, Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) during November 1st to 15th, 2021, is by far the worst at 312 (see graph). But India’s distinction goes beyond Delhi. The World Air Quality Report of 2020 shows that of the 30 most polluted cities in the world, 22 belonged to India. So, the problem is much deeper, raising doubts about the quality of our urbanisation.

Before thinking of how to cure this, we need right diagnostics. As per the Report of the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, energy generation (largely coal-based) is the biggest culprit, with a share of 44% in GHG emissions, followed by manufacturing and construction (18%), agriculture (14%), transport (13%) industrial processes and product use (8%), and waste burning (3%).

For replacing coal in power generation, solar and wind is the way to go at all-India level. In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did a commendable job in Glasgow by committing that 50% of India’s energy will be from renewable sources by 2030. But the current model in solar energy is heavily tilted towards companies. They are setting up large solar parks on degraded or less fertile lands. These tracts of land are committed only for solar energy for the next 25 years. It is good from efficiency point to minimise the cost of power generation, which is now even cheaper than the cost of thermal energy. But what if we supplement this model by developing solar farms on farmers’ fields? This would require solar panels to be fixed at 10 feet height with due spacing to let enough sunlight come to plants for photosynthesis. These ‘solar trees’ can then become the ‘third crop’ for farmers, earning them regular income throughout the year, provided the law allows them to sell this power to the national grid. Delhi government’s pilot in Ujwa KVK land on these lines showed that farmers can earn up to Rs 1 lakh per acre per year from this ‘solar farming’. This is on top of the two crops they can keep growing under those solar trees. This will double farmers’ income within a year! The investment of ‘solar trees’ on farmers’ fields is still done by companies. Only thing that farmers have to sign on is a sort of bond that they will not uproot these solar trees for 25 years, as that is the lifecycle of such solar projects. Doubling farmers’ income by 2022-23 is a dream that Prime Minister Modi has aspired, and here is chance to turn that dream into a reality.

But let me come back to Delhi’s pollution. As per the System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the reasons for poor AQI differ from day to day. For example, during the five days from November 9th to 13th, 30% of Delhi’s air pollution was due to stubble burning, another 22% from transport, 18% from external (other than stubble burning) factors, 12% from industries, 4% from biofuels, 8% from dust and the rest local (6%). But this contribution of stubble burning will drop to just 8%, if the period considered is from October 30th to November 3rd, 2021. On a particular day, say November 7th, stubble burning contributed 48% to Delhi’s air pollution, which fell to just 2% on November 18th. The fact is that even for a day, when AQI is above 350 and Delhiites are already gasping for breath, this stubble burning acts as the last proverbial straw on the camel’s back. The Centre needs to sit down with neighbouring states and come up with a plan to reduce rice area in this belt. It is well known that rice cultivation is fast depleting the water table and emitting methane and nitrous oxide. So, farmers need to be incentivised to switch to other crops through better returns than in rice cultivation.

To tackle vehicular pollution, we need massive drive towards electric vehicles (EVs), and later perhaps towards green hydrogen, when its production is cost-competitive to fossil fuels. Scaling up EVs quickly requires creating charging stations on war footing, more like we developed vaccines for Covid-19 and scaled up hospital beds. Each parking lot in offices, housing societies, hotels, hospitals, etc, needs to have fast charging points. This is a business opportunity, but policymakers can get it expedited by changing the rules of the game and providing upfront subsidies on EVs, if need be, equal to taxes imposed on diesel/petrol vehicles. The hesitancy to buy EVs due to lack of charging stations must go.

However, Delhi also needs a good carbon sink. Rejuvenating the ridge area with a dense forest, and also developing thick forests on both sides of the Yamuna may help.

The author is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER

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