A year ago, when the Delhi government implemented the second edition of the odd-even vehicle restriction during April 15-30 to fight air pollution, the Central Pollution Control Board, to everyone’s surprise, found that the pollution levels had increased during the experiment. That answer came from an image sent by a NASA satellite. The image showed that the smoke from crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana had travelled to the national capital, causing the rise in air pollution.
“But farmers don’t burn the rabi wheat crop residue, because it is an important fodder. We knew then that there was widespread burning post-paddy harvest—from October end till mid-November each year. This was happening because farmers in Punjab and Haryana were caught in a vicious time-cycle—they had to harvest rice and cultivate wheat in a space of 10-15 days.
Legal curbs? Yes…
Crop residue burning in farms is not new to India. According to a 2014 study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), in 2008-09 the country generated 620 million tonnes of crop residue, of which close to 16 per cent was burnt on farms. Of this, 60 per cent was paddy straw, while wheat accounted for just 22 per cent. Going by estimates, Punjab alone produces 19-20 million tonnes of paddy straw and about 20 million tonnes of wheat straw. About 85-90 per cent of this paddy straw is burnt in the field, and, as the satellite images show, wheat straw is also increasingly being burnt in recent years.
Of late, courts and governments have issued stern regulations and guidelines on burning crop residues. On December 10, 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned crop residue burning in states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Parts of these states constitute the National Capital Territory. In 2014, the Union government released the National Policy for Management of Crop Residue, which NGT directed the states to implement. Under this policy each state needs to have an action plan to stop residue burning by involving people at different levels—from communities to panchayats to state governments. It also calls for a mechanism to alert to cases of crop burning. Moreover, crop residue burning is punishable under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. Then why is the practice still gaining parlance?
…But reality bites
Ankit Choyal Jat, a commerce graduate and a farmer unmindful of the NASA satellites sensing biomass burning in his village Abgaon in Madhya Pradesh’s Harda district, offers an answer. “If I can clear my farm using a one-rupee matchbox, why will I spend thousands?” he asks. He has to prepare his farm for soybean crop in June and has to clear the stubble. According to him, the village had some 400 labourers a decade ago who would do this job. But all of them have migrated for better options. “Labour costs are very high now,” he laments.
Hari Ram Karore, a 71-year-old farmer who owns more than 10 hectares (ha) in the same village, says, “We started using combine harvester machines to tide over the labour scarcity. The machine finishes the task of reaping, threshing and winnowing in a few hours and is also economical,” he adds.
The machine appears to be the key reason behind the problem because it only reaps the grains, leaving stalks or stubble of around 40 cm. Those who want fodder have to get the stubble removed manually or use specialised machines to do the job. But that is costly. For every 0.4 ha of wheat crop, the cost of renting a combine harvester is just Rs 800. Once the machine has harvested, the cost of getting the stubble removed is Rs 3,500/ha. So the value of fodder is discounted because it is more economic for the farmers to just burn and clear the fields.
It is clear that wheat crop residue burning is emerging as a major issue in districts where irrigation is not a concern, cropping patterns are intense and mechanised farming options aplenty. Eighty per cent of Harda district, for instance, is irrigated and farmers cultivate three crops a year. This means the time between crops is too short to clear residues manually and the labour is in short supply. Though there is no consolidated data on the state-wide numbers, it is clear that districts like Harda are flooded with combine harvester machines.
An environmental hazard
As the new season of crop burning gets under way, it does raise the inevitable question: what will be its impact on the air quality and people’s health? The IARI study estimates that in 2008-09, 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. Our analysis shows that PM emissions from crop burning in one year is more than 17 times the total annual particulate pollution in Delhi from all sources—vehicles, industries, garbage burning, etc. Similarly, the total national annual emission for CO2 from crop residue burning is more than 64 times the total annual CO2 pollution emission in Delhi. For SO2, the total national annual emission from crop residue burning is about five times the total annual SO2 pollution emission in Delhi. This can lead to a number of health problems. A study by the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, has estimated that people in rural Punjab spend Rs 7.6 crore every year on treatment for ailments caused by stubble burning. Moreover, climate scientists have already linked fine particulate matter in the haze to the melting of Himalayan glaciers.
India is not the only country struggling with the problem. In Africa, there is hardly any country with a national policy to curb crop residue burning. Across the world, governments are framing policies to curb the menace, particularly in developing countries. In 1999, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations started a “zero burning” initiative, but no country was enthusiastic to roll out the plan. Among the developed countries, the United Kingdom enacted the Crop Residues (Burning) Regulations Act in 1993 that prohibits people from burning residue, except for purpose of education or research or to eliminate pests. China, however, devised an interesting way to deal with the problem. It banned stubble burning in 1999 and penalises officials under whose jurisdictional area the burning is detected. The fines go up to $80,000. In 2015 in Henan county government collected $ 37 million in such penalties.
The problem of crop residue burning was also highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2007, which said that lack of funds, more than anything else, had resulted in poor implementation of programmes. “What is threatening is the fact that pollution doesn’t recognise political boundary.