The Burning Issue of Air Pollution

Satyabrata Acharyya . December 3, 2019

The issue of air pollution in entire north India, especially in the cities/towns in the Gangetic basin has been assuming the magnitude of national calamity. Over 50 million people in Delhi NCR are directly affected, with air quality index plummeting to severe and alarming conditions. With noxious thick smog engulfing the entire region, the administration has given advisories to shut the school and limit the outdoor activities as the region chokes. The period from the late October to the first two weeks of November is particularly most severe. Different studies show that the contribution of stubble burning to carbon monoxide and atmospheric aerosol, especially of the size of PM2.5, is in the range of 20% to 40%.

While the reasons behind stubble burning, including its commercial/economic logic in the context of smallholder farmers are well known now, however, the key questions to consider are - can this practice be stopped altogether? And in an abrupt manner? Technically, the answer is `yes'. If the Governments across the three states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh collaborate, bring in tougher laws and penalties against stubble burning, and implement the same with all seriousness, it is possible to see a drastic check in the practice. However, there are a number of `ifs' that are unlikely to get resolved in the near future. The most important being a common intent among the parties in power in respective states to rise above the vote bank politics and act together.

The need of the hour is to follow a comprehensive approach, combining regulation, better awareness (of the environment), commercial logic and behavior change among farmers to make a shift towards clean practices. In the following we will discuss three key interventions that can change the current scenario:

Change in Rice-Wheat Cropping System to Maize-Wheat Cropping System:

The current rice-wheat cropping system is clearly untenable. Paddy is sown in Kharif (monsoon) followed by wheat in the winter. This combination of crop leaves 10-15 days window for the farmers to clear the paddy field and sow wheat. Given the shortage of farm labor and the high cost of hiring, stubble burning is the cheapest and quickest way for a large number of smallholder farmers to get their land ready for the next crop. Further, the farmers grow paddy crop in standing water that requires around four million liters of water per hectare. Currently, an estimated 2.5 million farmers are cultivating paddy in four million hectares of land. Multiplying four million liters of water use per hectare for four million hectares of the land area means a use of a mind-boggling 16 trillion liters of water in a single crop cycle! A major part of the water is pumped out from deep underground, leading to severe groundwater depletion in the entire region. On the contrary, maize which is one of the traditional crops of the region requires just about a fifth of water required by rice. The productivity of maize is equal or more than paddy and the crop duration is around 100 days. This leaves at least 30 days' time-gap for the sowing of the next crop. Maize stubbles are readily used as fodder or could be preserved longer through conversion into silage and hay. The question here is: how does the Government promote maize in place of rice? Strengthening farmer contact, awareness building and increasing MSP for maize would surely help. However, the time has come for the Governments of Punjab and Haryana to take the (unpopular) route of electricity subsidy cut, taxing irrigation water and no further increase in paddy MSP. This would curb the rampant practice of flood irrigation and create enough disincentives for the farmers to reduce the area under rice cultivation.

Adoption of Happy Seeder:

This device, mounted on a tractor, has been found to be effective in sowing wheat seeds amid crop stubbles soon after paddy harvest, thus nullifying the need for stubble burning. However, the cost of the device is prohibitive for smallholders, who see its utility only for 15 days in a year. To promote Happy Seeder on a large scale, the Government has to increase subsidy allocation for this. More importantly, the Government has to come up with a revenue model involving many more eco-system players such as local agri-entrepreneurs, farmers' organizations, start-ups, Panchayats to support common farmers access the services of the Happy Seeder at an affordable price.

Conversion of Crop Stubbles into Organic Manure:

Recent trials in Indian Agriculture Research Institute to convert crop stubbles and residues into organic manure hold good promise of solutions to the current problems. It is easy to fix an attachment to the crop harvester to be able to cut the crop much closer to the ground level. Upon removal of the grains, the crop residues could be fully converted into organic manure with the help of the consortia of microbes. The aerobic process of composting is rapid; requiring 21 to 45 days and it cancels out methane emission. It takes just about 1/300th area of the main field to accommodate heaves of paddy crop residues and convert the same into well-balanced organic manure. The rest of the field could be prepared for the next crop soon after paddy harvesting. The manure enriches the soil with precious organic carbon, that otherwise would have broken down and got released to the atmosphere in the form of toxic carbon monoxide or methane.

Returning to the issue of air pollution and sustainability, is it fair to put the blame only on farmers? After all, who is contributing to the other two-third part of the pollution? While cutting down subsidy on electricity and irrigation water at farmers’ end are the need of the hour, it is also important to reflect why do the citizens of Delhi need electricity and water at such low rates? Does it promote responsible behavior and judicious use of natural resources and reduce carbon footprints?

The article was earlier published in Business Standard on November 24, 2019.

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