The burning of crop residue in Punjab and Haryana, responsible for severe air pollution in Delhi and northern India, is declining but farmers need cheap and effective alternatives for it to stop altogether
In the afternoon of October 20, a 40-year-old farmer in Sangrur district of Punjab torched his four-acre field covered with paddy stubble even as the Central Pollution Control Board warned of serious air pollution. The pollution watchdog said in its daily air quality index (AQI) bulletin that air quality was very poor and severe in the national capital region (NCR), with values ranging between 300 and 500. The AQI needs to be below 50 to be termed as good. Sangrur is close to the NCR.
Both the farmer and his 70-year-old father, who supervised the operation, know that crop residue burning (CRB) causes air pollution and attracts fines between INR 2,500 and INR 15,000 (USD 34-205) but brush aside the concerns, saying that it is their majboori (Hindi for compulsion).
The father says he has been burning residue ever since he started growing rice 30 years ago “at the prodding of the government”. He says even if he uses Rotavator, a farm implement to mix crop residue and prepare the seedbed that he bought last year, the paddy residue still needs to be burnt. See: From bread basket to basket case
Ready for prison
Other implements for on-site residue management, such as Super-Straw Management System (Mulcher), which cuts the stubble and spreads it; or Happy Seeder, which sows wheat without burning the residue, are not available for hiring at the Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs) in the area. While the father says he is ready to go to jail, the son says he is scared but is helpless, as using implements for stubble management will raise his cost by INR 10,000 to INR 20,000 per acre.
In the neighbouring Kaithal district of Haryana state, which witnesses the most CRB incidents in India’s breadbasket, a rich farmer owning 21 acre land declares defiantly, “I will burn the residue on my 10-acre plot this evening. No, I will not pay the fine. Why does the government not ban rice mills belching fumes 24 hours a day (pointing at one)? There are 55 to 60 such mills running in our area. Don’t they pollute the environment?”
Another farmer expresses his helplessness, saying that it takes one-and-half months for the stubble to decompose, by which time the wheat-sowing season will be over.
Climate impact of residue burning
The burning of crop stubble is a matter of serious concern because it is a significant source of atmospheric particulate matters and greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane, which have short and long term impacts on global climate systems, according to a NASA report on biomass burning.
The government of India’s 2018 operational guidelines for on-site farm residue management for Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which are collectively known as the country breadbasket, says that an estimated 23 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in these states every year, shooting up the levels of carbon dioxide by 70%, carbon monoxide by 7% and nitrogen dioxide by 2.1%.
It also says that burning of one tonne 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 sulphur dioxide.
Impacting all of India
The residue burning started in the 1980s for both wheat and rice stalks with mechanisation of harvesting. Harvesting machines leave taller stubbles of 1-2 ft compared with less than 6 inches when the crops are manually harvested.
Although the current concern of policymakers and the media over air pollution due to the annual burning in autumn is focussed on New Delhi and the NCR, a study released in June 2018 says the threat is spreading to other parts of India as well.
Using NASA images and evidence on the ground, the study says there’s “an increasing impact of CRB over the eastern parts of the Indo-Gangetic Basin and also over parts of central and southern India.” The increasing trends of finer black carbon particles and greenhouse gases have also accelerated since 2010, it said. See: Air quality worsens in India, Delhi improves
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana say that on-site residue management doesn’t work for paddy. Contrary to the government policy of promoting management of residue in the farm itself, conversations with farmers in half-a-dozen villages in Sangrur in Punjab and Kaithal in Haryana revealed that they think otherwise.
They point to three shortcomings — one, paddy residue takes a long time (more than a month) to decompose and mix with soil; two, paddy residue provides ideal breeding grounds for termites and rats; and three, wheat germination and plant growth is significantly impacted, reducing yield by 30-40%.
Therefore, they argue, providing incentives for on-site residue management systems such as Happy Seeder, Zero-till, Rotavator, Super-SMS or Mulcher are of little use in case of paddy despite the government providing financial incentives. These range from 50% to individuals to 80% to farmer groups and cooperatives.
One farmer in Sangrur said he had inquired from those who had used Happy Seeder and was told that crop yield reduced by half.
These farmers also dismiss that residue burning harms the soil or reduces yield. “In my 15 years of experience (of stubble burning), I have not found any harm to my land. If at all, negative impact is very little”, said a Sangrur farmer who declared that he would be burning the residues this year too.
He says the topsoil may heat up for a while but it cools down soon and the ashes gel well with soil. Besides, farmers say, burning kills brown plant hoppers and mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue.
Eminent agriculture economist Sardar Singh Johl, however, differs. He blamed this attitude on lack of awareness among the farmers and a higher emphasis on maximising rather than optimising yield. Farmers were wasting organic matter (stubble) and harming the soil by burning residue while cheaper alternatives were available with agriculture universities, he told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Interactions with farmers also reveal that they are aware of environmental concerns and the government’s carrot-and-stick policies, but their problem is multi-faceted. The on-site residue management systems are expensive — costing from a few thousand to several lakh rupees — and are useful just for a day or two in a year.
Many farmers claimed that they bought one of these implements in the past two years, applied for the subsidy but haven’t got it yet. Non-availability of such implements for hiring at the CHCs or farmers’ cooperatives in these areas is another constraint.
The farmers talk of other solutions. The state government could arrange for collecting, transporting and utilising crop residue, and setting up industries that could use it, such as paper, waste energy, packing and cement plants and so on. See: Easy solution to India’s air pollution problem
One farmer pointed out that the Hay Baler machine that compresses the crop residue into bales could be useful in such a scenario, but is prohibitively costly. Composting stubble — about which there is incessant radio commercials in the two states — has little resonance on the ground.
Burning is declining
However, official data, anecdotal evidence and ground-level feedback all point to the fact that CRB is going down. Crop burning incidents had gone down substantially, from 11,179 in 2016 to 7,613 in 2017 and 2,589 in 2018 during the period between September 27 and October 21, Punjab Pollution Control Board chairman K.S. Pannu told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
In Haryana, member secretary of the state pollution control board S. Narayanan said CRB had gone down by 35-40% so far. As on October 21, about 2,600 cases have been recorded, as against about 4,000 by this day in 2017. There were 12,600 CRB incidents in the state during the entire season of 2017.
The two states have adopted different approaches. Punjab is more lenient, with the chief minister seeking a compensation of INR 100 per quintal from the central government. It also has a strong farmers’ organisation, which is very vocal and openly supportive of CRB, even live streaming the incident of October 20 mentioned earlier.
Haryana has been tough with daily field visits to identify and impose fines. Fear of being found out is real on the ground in Kaithal. So far, 750 farmers have been fined to the tune of INR 470,000 in the state. No such data is available for Punjab, revealing its milder approach.
It’s however evident that creating awareness and providing cheap and effective alternatives to crop residue burning are more likely to produce better results.