Balsher Singh Sidhu
The deterioration of air quality in northern India during the first winter months has become a common feature in recent years. Schools are closed, respiratory masks are distributed, construction activities are suspended, vehicle movement is restricted, flights are diverted, and fingers are pointed. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are largely blamed for burning crop residues after the rice harvest. There is ample evidence that smoke from stubble burning in these regions is a major source of air pollution these days. According to the central government’s air quality monitoring program SAFAR, on November 1, agricultural fires accounted for almost half of Delhi’s air pollution burden.
The point where the discussion loses nuance is when farmers are blamed for setting their fields on fire. To understand this enigma, it is necessary to go back a few decades. Northern India, particularly Punjab and Haryana, was the epicenter of the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Huge government incentives in the form of improved seed varieties, easy loans, energy subsidies, and assured prices for wheat and rice encouraged farmers to adopt the growing pattern of wheat and rice. Fast forward to today, all policies (agricultural or otherwise) are manifested in such a way that farmers receive the maximum economic return from growing these two crops. In 2009, Punjab and Haryana enacted laws to delay rice planting for a few weeks in the monsoon season to reduce groundwater use. As a result, the rice crop approached the sowing window of the next crop, which led to the concentration of crop residues that burned in fewer days amid weather conditions that favor the accumulation of pollutants in the north of India. So a potent mix of unintended consequences of shortsighted policies is making Delhi’s air pollution worse, not farmers.
Today’s dangerous air quality is not a phenomenon in Delhi, although the latter has received most of the media attention. Those most affected by the smoke from burning stubble are the farmers themselves. They are exposed to even worse air quality than city dwellers because they live closer to the source. While the fire burns, farmers spend hours in their fields to control its spread, lest it enter neighboring fields. They are aware of the fact that it is dangerous for their health and that of their families. At the same time, fires are extremely detrimental to soil quality, damaging both soil biota and fertility.
Viable alternatives are needed
Currently, there is no viable alternative to burning because time constraints are mounting against farmers as they need to quickly clear the field to plant the next crop. Admittedly, the Punjab government, under a central scheme, has subsidized machines for handling crop residues on site without burning. As of today, 14,000 Happy Seeders and 6,000 Super-Straw Management Systems have been purchased and distributed. However, the initiative is still not enough to manage the stubble on 30 lakh hectares cultivated with rice in Punjab. A major impediment is the short 25-30 day window to sow the next crop, so this expensive machinery collects dust for the rest of the year. Despite the subsidy, these machines are not an economically viable option for small farmers. Even if there were enough Happy Seeders, they need bigger tractors and consume a lot of diesel, another source of air pollution.
Indian farmers, especially those who grow wheat and rice, are unique players in the economy because most of them operate in a closed market. The purchase price of their products is set by the government, which keeps the country’s food prices under control. Since farmers have little control over their profits, it is unfair to expect them to absorb all the additional costs of stubble management. Policy makers can break the annual cycle of stubble burning by increasing the minimum support price (MSP) to account for the cost of crop residue management. Once this cost is internalized in the price that farmers receive, the ban on agricultural fires must be strictly enforced and non-compilers punished. The Supreme Court recently ordered the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to provide 100 rupees per quintal to farmers who manage crop residues without burning them. It is premature to judge the success of this initiative.
Governments can also collect and process crop residues at central facilities. There are studies that propose this waste as a source of renewable energy. MS Swaminathan, the architect of the Green Revolution, has proposed making paper, cardboard and animal feed from rice stubble. It is necessary that these ecological alternatives are economically viable for all the agents involved.
To remind ourselves that farmers are not solely responsible for agricultural fires, let’s use an analogy from another area, that of urban wastewater in Delhi. More than half of Delhi’s domestic wastewater goes to the Yamuna without any treatment. It has detrimental effects on the people downstream from Delhi who depend on the Yamuna for their water. We rightly hold the government, and not the residents of Delhi, responsible for failing to establish facilities for the treatment of this wastewater. Similarly, farmers alone cannot be forced to bear the burden of managing crop residues. They do not work in isolation and should not be pushed into the line of fire alone.
Legislation already exists that bans agricultural fires, but its implementation fades every year. Centuries of failed policies and laws have taught us that when there are no alternatives, directives and dictates are bound to fail. This is a larger social problem, one that requires all levels of society, especially state and central governments, to come together so that our citizens, both rural and urban, can breathe in a cleaner environment. We’re all in this together, so let’s end this blame game and collectively find a solution.
FACTS THAT MATTER
- The area under rice cultivation has increased rapidly in Punjab over the past decades. Starting at less than 2.5 lakh hectares in 1960, rice is grown on more than 30 lakh hectares today.
- In northwestern India, 23 million tonnes of rice residues are burned annually, with Punjab accounting for around 80 percent.
- This year, the Punjab government has provided around 10,000 crop residue handling machines, up from more than 28,000 in 2018.
- All the Happy Seeders distributed in Punjab in the last two years, if used continuously for a period of 25 to 30 days, cannot cover more than half of the area of the state cultivated with rice.
- Burning one ton of rice straw releases 3 kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460 kg of carbon dioxide, 199 kg of ash and 2 kg of sulfur dioxide.
The author is an academic researcher at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.