Poor air quality is an everyday problem in Delhi, but its residents, by extension the government, only seem to react when the air gets visibly poor with the city enveloped in smog and the air perceptibly toxic. That is generally during onset of the winter season that is, October and November.
A Seasonal, High Visibility Problem
For about three to four weeks during this period, Delhi’s already poor air quality gets an additional influx of particulate matter as farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana burn paddy crop residue to clear the land quickly in time for sowing the winter wheat crop. “Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh produce nearly 40 million tonnes of paddy straw every year. Punjab alone produces about 22 to 23 million tonnes. Most of which is burnt,” says Sucha Singh Gill of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh. Cooling temperatures and other meteorological conditions such as lower boundary layer height, calmer post monsoon winds, and high relative humidity aid the movement of the particulate matter produced by burning towards the Delhi and the western Indo-Gangetic Plain.
Over the last few years, political parties have been wading into the seasonal conversation on pollution. This has been more in the nature of a pre-emptive blame game and the inevitable strike back. Agricultural stubble burning is the main focus, the lack of effort and progress in addressing perennial or year-long sources of pollution, particularly those within Delhi’s airshed are overlooked. This fits in with the general approach, in government and outside, to tackling pollution—it is episodic and more concerned with dealing with the spikes.
Crop residue, Dubash explained, contributes to the spike in air pollution “when even the healthy start feeling unwell”. But it is far from the only or even the biggest source of pollution in National Capital Territory of Delhi. Crop burning is literally the straw the broke the camel’s back. Source apportionment studies by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (2015), The Energy and Resources Institute (2018) and the Automotive Research Association of India (2018) all found that major sources of particulate matter pollution (PM2.5 and PM10) during the winter months were biomass and garbage burning in the city, vehicular emission, secondary compounds, industry, and road, construction and demolition dust. Given the episodic nature of crop burning, its share for season works out to 5 per cent—though continuous monitoring on some days it can contribute as much as 44 per cent to the city’s PM2.5 load.
This year, till now, the highest contribution of crop burning to the city’s pollution has been 19 per cent (on two days in the last fortnight that is October 10 to 26). The share has been at less than 10 per cent for 9 days going as low as 1 per cent. What is notable is that number of fires have been for the most part higher than in 2019 or 2018.
By limiting the efforts to curb pollution to crop residue burning has meant that Delhi and the national capital region have been devoting their efforts to tackling a 5 per cent problem while neglecting the 95 per cent. “If you are looking at averages then crop residue burning contributes around 5 per cent to Delhi's air pollution. But on particular days in the season, those with the highest number of fires, the contribution can be as high as 40 per cent,” said Sumit Sharma, Director, Earth Science and Climate Change Division at The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), a New Delhi-based think tank.
Crop residue burning is one part of the problem. A seasonal source of particulate matter pollution, crop residue burning is a demonstration of why environmental concerns such as air quality cannot be addressed in isolation and there are no easy or quick solutions.
The Anatomy of a Problem
Paddy was not traditionally grown in Punjab and Haryana given its high water requirement. In her study on crop residue burning in Punjab. Niti Gupta, a research analyst with the New Delhi-based think tank Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), writes that paddy requires at least 18 mm of water per day for almost 100 days compared to 500 mm required for wheat during the entire growth season.
The Green Revolution and the introduction of high yield hybrid seeds changed things. Policies began to be geared towards encouraging paddy cultivation. Punjab average rainfall is about 650 mm, of which 500 mm falls in the rainy season between July to September. But this isn’t adequate for paddy cultivation the shortfall, which researchers put at 1,100 mm per hectare, is made up by drawing groundwater. The government’s policy of providing farmers with free electricity meant that farmers could meet their water requirement for cultivating paddy.
By the 1980s, government was procuring 80 per cent of the rice produced. The assured market structure along with a minimum support policy that supported the cultivation of non-basmati high yielding varieties of rice made paddy cultivation lucrative. Its high remunerative value meant improved incomes, making the farmers of these two states relatively better off than their counterparts elsewhere. Farmers in the region shifted from a maize-wheat crop mix to wheat-paddy.
In the mid-1980s, the farmers adopted mechanised harvesting. A move that reduced the amount of time they had to spend in the fields thereby allowing them to increase land under cultivation. The area under paddy cultivation increased from 1183 thousand hectare in 1980-81 to 3103 thousand hectare in 2018-19 while the area under cultivation of crops traditionally grown in the region such as maize and pulses declined. Between 1980-81 and 2018-19 area under maize cultivation declined from 382 to 109 thousand hectares, while area under pulses declined from 341 thousand hectares in 1980-81 to 20 thousand hectares in 2016-17.
The mechanical combines used for harvesting left behind stalks with inbound roots. The stalk of the wheat crop can be cleared by allowing the livestock to feed on it, The paddy residue is burnt because its high silica content makes it unsuitable for livestock feed. But the burning did not rise to the level of a problem for air quality in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
That changed when the indiscriminate withdrawal of ground water led to a crisis. Ground water withdrawal was outpacing the recharge rate. As Gupta explained, “If the rice-wheat monoculture remains, the water table in central Punjab is expected to fall below 70 feet in 66 per cent of the area by 2023, below 100 feet in 34 per cent of the area, and much below 130 feet in 7 per cent of the area.”
The Problem of Vested Interests
The Punjab state government was staring at an ecological crisis. But given the centrality of paddy to the prosperity of the state’s farmers and their political power, the state government had to find an option that would address the water crisis without abandoning paddy cultivation.
In 2008-09, the state government introduced the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act synchronising the paddy crop with the monsoon season. Farmers could no longer cultivate paddy through the year. The decision to restrict paddy cultivation to the monsoon season was done to limit ground water usage. “The new system meant a later sowing and harvest season for paddy, and an extremely short gap between the paddy harvest and the winter sowing season. Burning became the quickest and the most viable option for clearing the land. And the unfavourable meteorological conditions of the post monsoon period meant that the burning particulates would be transported to Delhi and western Indo-Gangetic Plains,” said Vibha Dhawan, Distinguished Fellow at TERI.
The assured market structure and the MSP regime for non-basmati paddy meant that paddy continued to be a lucrative crop. Farmers are unwilling to give it up, and politicians understood the heavy electoral price they would pay if they restricted paddy cultivation. At the same time the impact on air quality could not be ignored. Faced with an emergency, the focus shifted to managing the paddy crop residue.
In 2017, the central government set up a task force on biomass management under the aegis of the NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank. The aim was to curb the practice of crop residue burning by encouraging and enabling farmers to use the residue for mulching or to sell the residue as feedstock for power generation.
As part of this effort, the Confederation of Indian Industries Foundation carried out pilot interventions across 19 villages in the Ludhiana and Patiala districts of Punjab to encourage farmers to use the paddy straw for mulching—a process by which the stalk residue is mechanically cut and then spread over the field in time disintegrating to function like manure. This process and the subsequent sowing require specialised equipment. To encourage farmers to make the shift, the central government in 2018 announced an agricultural mechanisation scheme with total fund of Rs 1,152 crore for 2018-19 and 2019-20. This money was for subsiding machines to help remove the crop stubble without burning.
The results have been mixed. Farmers point to lack of equipment—too few compared to the need. Equipment manufacturers hiked their process, making the subsidy given to farmers for buying the machinery inadequate. Seema Arora, deputy director general, CII, who was involved with the pilot interventions says resolving the crop burning problem “will require addressing the issue from the farmers’ perspective. It is more than making equipment available to farmers”. Arora points to the need to train farmers to enable them to make the changes in agricultural practice that technological interventions necessarily require. “It has to be about behaviour change and that can happen when farmers realise that investment required to move away from burning residue is yielding returns. In effect, the farmer must be prepared to deal with the change in ecosystem,” stresses Arora.
No Easy Solutions
Long-term solution will require revisiting cropping patterns. Given the problems of a receding water table, it seems clear that Punjab-Haryana farmer must move away from cultivating paddy. However, the pricing and incentives structure is not conducive to this shift. Though the government has substantially increased the minimum support price for crops such as coarse grains, maize, and pulses farmers in the region are unwilling to shift. They say that the returns are low, and cultivating paddy, despite the problems, continues make economic sense.
Dhawan says that farmers will not shift away from paddy till the other crops such as coarse grains and pulses yield higher incomes. Instead she suggests “developing and popularising an early maturing variety of rice. This will ensure that farmers have a month for harvesting, and this would reduce the need to burn stubble.”
At the same time, Dhawan says that “the government must create the necessary technological infrastructure for farmers to access the equipment necessary to shift from the practice of crop residue burning. Effectively, the government needs to approach this as an infrastructure investment akin to building roads. And finally, there is a need to invest in an ecosystem that encourages diversification of crops, focusing on those save water and improve nutrition content, and in the technological changes that will permit a more sustainable agricultural practice.”
Gill suggests creating economic value for the paddy straw, by using it as feedstock for biofuel. For Gill, the in-situ disposal of paddy straw by mulching is a waste of resource that could bring extra income to the farmers and meet fuel and energy needs.
Sumit Sharma agrees with Gill. He argues that creating economic value for the crop residue will put an end to stubble burning. He says, “we need to focus on converting the crop stubble into useful energy, so that it becomes a revenue earning option for farmers. Right now the focus is on encouraging mulching, and for that farmers incur a certain cost, so they see it as eating into their profits. The technology for ex situ utilisation is there, some pilots have been conducted but the business model to take it to scale is not there yet—who will pay for collection, how do you transport the stubble, storing and utilisation.”
Tackling crop residue burning will require a systemic and long-term effort. This includes economically viable and profitable uses for the stubble, so that farmers see it as a resource and not a nuisance. Considering the impact of burning on soil productivity and health, and human health in these communities and getting farmers in Punjab-Haryana to cultivating crops such as maize. This will require policy interventions, increased awareness, and economic opportunities.
At the same time, downwind areas that is Delhi and the national capital region have to focus on reducing the pollution load in their region as well. This will require greater focus on reducing road dust and construction and demolition dust, as well as pollution from industrial sources. As Dubash puts it, “we have to understand air pollution as 5 times 20 problem. There are 20 buckets of things and we have to address them all to solve Delhi’s air pollution problem.”
(This story has been updated. An earlier version of this story appeared in November 2019.)
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4 Comments on this Story
Dillip Patnaik29 days ago
Delhi has many research institutes and research scientists but no one addressing the real technology to get rid of Delhi’s chronic pollution. India government and the Delhi government should consider Plasma Arc Thermal Gasification Technology to gasify the garbage and produce bio gasoline and electricity.
Deviprasad Nayak29 days ago
Air from Arab countries bring dust to North India.Why to ignore this?
Jayeshkumar Panchal29 days ago
True, there is more to this Air Pollution in Delhi than merely Crop burning, and it ranges from Economics to International Politics, from Religion to Geo-Politics, from Energy for Automobiles to Innovations that follow the Laws of Motion; and all the way to the Science of the Stars, Planets, Galaxies and those Blackholes. BTW, India has one of the Best Solution to Drastically reduce the Air Pollution, Heat and Carbon Emission from our ill-conceived, Energy Hungry and Polluting Automobiles, but we Indians would like to remain Slave to the Western Economies. ..to not even talk about it, when the Planet is burning with Climate Crisis.