In-situ practices, crop diversification will help eliminate this
By Sagnik Dey
In the Patiala district of Punjab, Kripal Singh drives his tractor over the charred, black terrain of his farm. Fresh seeds are scattered in the soil, while over this tale of new beginnings hangs the dense smoke reeking of what came before it. Like Kripal, thousands of farmers in Haryana, Punjab and UP clear paddy stubble in their fields by setting it alight. An estimated 12-15 million tonnes of crop residue are burnt each year in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western UP. The smoke from stubble burning is a major source of air pollution across northern India during October and November.
During this time unfavourable meteorological events occur in the National Capital Region (NCR) and when stubble burning is added to the mix, the lack of wind dispersion further multiplies the adverse effect. The resultant all too familiar smog and haze seem to be all pervasive in Delhi-NCR and underscore, in a very grim fashion, a problem which has been festering unresolved for some years now with deleterious consequences all around.
The crippling effect of crop residue burning induced air pollution: This phenomenon leads authorities to temporarily ban construction activities, brick kilns, use of diesel gensets and regular functioning of schools. These measures have an adverse economic impact which has been aggravated given the Covid-19-induced shock.
The impact of crop burning on public health has been well documented. As per a Lancet study titled ‘Health and economic impact of air pollution in the states of India: The Global burden of disease study in 2019’, 1.67 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019, accounting for 17.8% of the total deaths in the country. The majority of these deaths were from ambient particulate matter pollution and household air pollution.
Focus should be on existing and scalable crop residue burning solutions (in-situ technologies): The good news is that solutions to the problem of crop residue burning exist and in fact there are quick solutions (like on-field management of residues through use of in-situ technologies) to address this issue compared to other sources of air pollution. The point is that if the government and civil society stay the course and address the issue, these spikes in air pollution and episodic occurrences could well be a thing of the past.
It’s also important to understand that reducing air pollution from crop residue burning provides the space and time needed to tackle emissions from other sources like industry and transport, which need a longer time frame to address.
Then there is the issue of stakeholder buy-in. During the months of October and November, citizens have come to fear very poor air quality. If this issue can be tackled well and mitigated, it can create a positive public perception that dealing with air pollution is possible. Currently there is a sense of resignation that nothing can be done and having public opinion on the right side of this fight against air pollution is going to be critical in the coming years.
Government has tried to address issues of access and affordability: The central government has also tried to incentivise the use of modern techniques, especially in-situ techniques to address the crop residue burning issue. From 2018 to 2020, it launched a Rs 1,750-crore scheme to support farmers on residue management. Under this scheme, agricultural machines and equipment for in-situ crop residue management (such as the super straw management system for combine harvesters, Happy Seeders, hydraulically reversible mould board ploughs, paddy straw chopper, mulcher, rotary slasher, zero till seed drill and rotavators) are provided with 50% subsidy to individual farmers and 80% subsidy to establish custom hiring centres. This has led to some level of adoption of these technologies though issues remain as far as availability, effective utilisation and adoption are concerned.
This is borne out by official data. According to data available from the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre, Ludhiana, revealed that in 2019 that the Happy Seeder sown wheat area was 5.30 lakh hectares (13.09 lakh acres) out of the total wheat area of 35.05 lakh hectares (86.82 lakh acres) in Punjab. Similarly, other in-situ technologies were adopted.
As per CREAMS, IARI data, there was a reduction in fire events in Punjab and Haryana to the tune of 15% and 31% in 2019 on year-on-year basis. But, in 2020, fire events were slightly higher in Punjab though there was some reduction in Haryana and that is perhaps because there are still some issues relating to access of machines, awareness on machine operation and related agronomical practices, and effective utilization of existing machines that need to be urgently addressed.
Yet stubble burning could be on the upswing with the increase in population and food demand. A UN report pointed out that the world population may rise to 10 billion by 2050, which will, in turn, lead to increased food demand. This will necessitate the production of more food and usage of technologies like combines (also due to lack of labour) that may increase the problem of crop residue burning and hence there is an urgent need to adopt identified and validated solutions such as in-situ solutions to address the issue of dealing with crop residue in a sustainable way.
Addressing crop residue burning needs an integrated, focused approach: Of all the sources of pollution, the issue of crop residue burning has received significant policy attention and political buy-in. It is important we do not drop the ball at this juncture. In fact, success on crop residue will build momentum to devise effective solutions for other sources of air pollution.
Eliminating the practice of stubble burning and management of crop residue through adoption of in-situ practices and crop diversification strategies will help eliminate the prevalent practice of stubble burning and lower air pollution levels thus contributing positively to public health.
The author is institute Chair and associate professor, Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, and coordinator, Centre of Excellence for Research on Clean Air (CERCA), IIT Delhi