Stubble Burning: What the government should do to control air pollution in Delhi

Incentivising low water-use crops like millets instead of paddy, paying for farm-waste—especially involving enterprises that can use the waste as a raw material—make better sense.

Stubble Burning: What the government should do to control air pollution in Delhi
Crop residue burning directly affects Delhi and NCR, among others. (File photo: IE)

By Jyoti Pande Lavakare

In all the interest around the Supreme Court judgment allowing only green or zero-emission firecrackers, what has been forgotten is that the same petition also pleads for controlling pollution created from other sources, such as burning of crop stubble, garbage as well as vehicular emissions.

Crop residue burning directly affects Delhi and NCR, among others. We must begin by recognising that the farmers burning crop residue in Northern India aren’t evil people deliberately trying to poison the city-dwellers with toxic fumes. Farmers are the first inhalers of the smoke, before it billows towards urban centres; so, they can’t really be unaware of its toxic effects. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana burn crop stubble to clear their fields as they have no real alternatives. Burning is the fastest way to turnaround their capital—their acreage.

This doesn’t mean that they are justified in doing this. This, and anything that jeopardises human health to such a degree, is wrong, and must stop. It is the elected government’s job to ensure that the ban on crop stubble burning is enforced.

But, reactive, quick-fix, bandaid solutions aren’t going to help anyone. A comprehensive policy, created and executed by a centralised, empowered and accountable authority tasked with measurable, time-bound goals is what is needed. And here is where all political parties have let urban residents as well as farmers down.

Let us consider just the burning of crop stubble for the purposes of this article and examine solutions that the government could have implemented with its existing resources.

Stubble burning happens every year in October, overloading an already high base load of PM2.5, because farmers have to harvest paddy rapidly and clear their acreage for the next round of sowing of the winter crop of wheat—and all this must be completed before mid-November. We also know that some varieties of rice, grown from modified seeds in Punjab and Haryana, which follow more “advanced” techniques have stalks high in silica, and thus are too hard to be used as fodder . Furthermore, this happens at the exact time that the easterly and monsoon winds change direction to westerly and north westerlies, with the resulting air currents sending the billowing smoke towards Delhi.

What could the government have done—and can still do?
The Union agriculture ministry could have asked the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the National Soil Research Institute and other similar institutions to come up with rapidly implementable solutions. Soil researchers could educate farmers on the damage they cause to the soil when they burn straw, which depletes it of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphates, potassium. This, then, creates the conditions for higher application of fertilisers, raising the costs for the farmer while hitting soil quality in the long term. Higher fertiliser use doesn’t only mean higher fertiliser subsidy outgo by the government but also higher input costs for farmers. Simultaneously, scientists could have been tasked with identifying and encouraging the use of those seed varieties with softer stalks that can be used as fodder.

But, more fundamentally, they could have studied whether it makes sense to grow high water-use paddy in a traditionally wheat-producing region. These are areas that used to grow low water-use, nutrition-dense coarse grains such as pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, rye and maize. Perhaps the government can offer better price support to encourage farmers to switch back to crops like these. Now that ethanol can be made from maize and sorghum—which can be planted later, allowing farmers a longer turnaround window to clear their fields—there is even less reason to allow North India’s water table to get depleted further.

Our scientists could have been tasked with coming up with mechanisms to reuse farm waste and monetise these. The instant you make waste valuable, farmers won’t burn it. So, another solution would be to make direct payments to farmers to deposit crop waste at collection centres or a formula to link this to their MSP payments. Simultaneously, entrepreneurs could be encouraged/subsidised to offer green refrigeration systems that are powered by farm waste or sell eco-friendly crockery made with this compostable material (which many startups are trying).

The agriculture ministry could have tied-up with the rural development ministry to deploy MNREGA labour in farms during harvest for acreages needing quick turnaround. This would be a much more productive use of our tax money.

Crop burning isn’t unique to India. While solutions are being worked out, the government could could advise farmers on the direction of the winds and their speed—like the American state of California does—so that any limited burning would at least not form the sort of toxic cloud that hangs over Delhi.
But, coming back to how to entirely avoid burning stubble, several farmers I met from Punjab recently were happy with the Happy Seeder, a machine that simultaneously performs the dual job of cutting crop stubble and sowing seeds. But before propagating the Happy Seeder as the only solution and subsidising and encouraging, it would be advisable to check whether, thanks to the diesel such machines use, the solution doesn’t end up swapping one source of pollution with another, not to mention push up farm-costs further as oil prices rise.

Why do Uttar Pradesh farmers who grow similar crops take to burning to amuch lesser degree than their Punjab peers? According to Chowdhury Pushpendra Singh, a farmer from Bulandshahar, west UP, farmers in the state burn less paddy straw because they employ more traditional farming techniques that use up most of the crop waste as fodder, animal bedding and compost. “Crop stubble from basmati seed varieties 1121 and 1509 doesn’t have very tough/high silica stalks,” he explains. Singh is aware of the benefits of the Happy Seeder, but also feels that traditional techniques with some tweaks in rice varieties sown could easily lower costs across the board. In a labour-rich country like ours, deploying more Happy Seeders and emphasising on capital-intensive alternatives is counter-intuitive.

Instead of working on solutions, the government hasn’t even come out with the final version of its much-touted National Clean Air plan as yet. The NCLAP may have been flawed, but it was a start. Now, it looks like another season—and election—will go by even as beleagured and vulnerable citizens hope for respite and succour.

The author is co-founder of Care for Air ( Views are personal

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First published on: 29-10-2018 at 05:01 IST