Winter will soon be here but much before that most of North India will be covered by a pall of grey haze and black smog hanging thick in the air. Multiple studies have shown that vehicular emissions, industrial activities, construction dust, burning of coal, firewood and parali (stubble burning), are the main contributors to the deadly air that envelops the cities and chokes its citizens.
Between October and November every year the blame for air pollution shifts to the farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, who after harvesting their Kharif crop of rice, take the traditional quick and easy route of parali, and burn the paddy straw and stubble, to prepare their land to sow the next Rabi crop, which is usually wheat.
In his book, The Great Smog of India, Siddharth Singh, observes that parali is not an age-old practice. According to him, the practice — at this magnitude, frequency and scale — can trace its origins to only a few decades ago, and is the result of the ‘evolution of farming operations, government policy, and changing labour markets, which were triggered by the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the agricultural policies that followed’.
During the Green Revolution, in the 1970s, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh started growing a high-yield variety (HYV) of rice developed by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines that could produce seven tonnes of rice per hectare, instead of the existing varieties that produced only two tonnes per hectare, and it also took much less time to hit full maturity.
This rice variety was aggressively promoted by the State, with the government procuring around 80 percent of the rice produced in Punjab in the 1980s. By the late ’90s, the region had fully adopted the rice-wheat-cropping-system, with wheat being sown and harvested in the dry winter season, and rice to coincide with the monsoon season as per timings mandated by the state governments.
Effectively the two crop periods of Kharif and Rabi in the case of rice and wheat moved close to one another, leaving about 15 days in between the two crop cycles. Almost 80 percent of the rice crop is harvested using combine harvesters which leaves stubble stalks around 15 cm high, almost 1.5 times the size of the grain.
It is economically unviable, labour intensive and time consuming for an average farmer to remove these stubble manually using farm equipment. According to some estimates, farmers in northern India burn about 23 million tonnes of paddy stubble every year. Stubble-burning, in a nutshell, is an unintended consequence of the technology developed for the Green Revolution.
According to a new environment ministry report, the average contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s air pollution has grown from 10 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in 2020. Another study estimates that crop residue burning released 149.24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), over 9 million tonnes of carbon monoxide (CO), 0.25 million tonnes of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 million tonnes of particulate matter and 0.07 million tonnes of black carbon.
Supreme Court in the case of MC Mehta (Stubble burning and Air Quality) versus Union of India, (2020) 7 SCC 530, observed that stubble burning causes a serious kind of pollution which threatens the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution of India. It issued directions to the chief secretaries of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi, including panchayats and administrative authorities, to ensure stubble burning does not take place.
Meanwhile the farmers protesting against the three farm acts that were passed by Parliament in September 2020 are also up in arms against the Commission for Air Quality Management ordinance which imposes a fine of up to Rs 1 crore and imprisonment up to five years for stubble burning and violating pollution norms. In December, the Centre decided to exclude farmers from the penalties after reaching a consensus with them. But the commission was still empowered to penalise them under another section of the ordinance. While Section 14 of the ordinance states that no penalties will apply to farmers, Section 15 states that the commission “may impose and collect environmental compensation from farmers causing air pollution by stubble burning, at such rate and in such manner”.
Other solutions to tackle stubble burning have been proposed, but are yet to be widely followed as is evident in the rising number of fires every year. In 2014, the Union agriculture ministry formed the National Policy for Management of Crop Residue for states that prescribed multiple objectives for the management of stubble with the use of technology. But no significant progress has been made on this front, according to a paper by The Energy and Resources Institute in 2020.
The Indian Agriculture Research Institute has devised a solution for stubble burning in the form of a bio-enzyme called PUSA. When sprayed, this enzyme decomposes the stubble in 20-25 days, turning it into manure, further improving the soil quality. While the spray itself is cheap, the spraying needs the deployment of large mechanised sprayers. Then there is the Happy Seeder — a machine mounted on a tractor that removes the paddy straw while simultaneously sowing wheat for the next harvest. It was touted as eco-friendly, fast and effective but is prohibitive for most farmers. The Punjab government has also roped in private industry to manage crop stubble by creating a Rs 25-crore scheme for paper mills and sugar mills to incentivise them to install boilers that use paddy straw as fuel. These paddy straw boilers are being incentivised for distilleries and bio-ethanol projects as well.
But the only long term solution, most experts agree on, is crop diversification to break the rice-wheat-cropping-system, by creating enabling technologies and eco-systems for diversifying agriculture with greater emphasis on vegetables, minor millets, oilseeds, and pulses. Haryana has taken the cue and launched an incentive-driven flagship scheme, Mera Pani Meri Virasat, for diversification from paddy to alternate crops — and this year, farmers have registered 98,000 acres for diversification.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba.Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.