At a campaign rally in Haryana Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the state’s farmers that the river water which belongs to India but is flowing to Pakistan would soon get diverted to the fields of Haryana and Rajasthan for the benefit of agriculture.
When the PM delivers on this promise, it will not only address the water scarcity issue in northern India, but could move one step towards addressing the problem of air pollution in the Gangetic belt.
How the problem arose
The depletion of ground water due to paddy cultivation led the Haryana and Punjab governments to enact laws whose objective was to preserve ground water. The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act and the Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act were passed in 2009.
These resulted not only in pushing the crop cycle closer to the monsoon and saving ground water, as intended, but also in shortening the time for harvesting before the next crop. This resulted in reducing the time farmers had to remove crop residue, encouraging them to burn the residue.
Unfortunately, this coincided with the exact time when winter sets in north India, in October/November. The direction of the wind changes and the temperature falls, making it difficult to disperse the particulate matter created by burning crop residue. The resulting high air pollution levels have wreaked havoc across the whole of North India.
In the coming weeks, air pollution levels in north India are set to increase to severe and hazardous levels. While the media focuses on Delhi, and the political blame game focuses on how much crop burning versus local Delhi factors like construction dust contribute to its air pollution, there is little evidence on the impact of crop burning in rural north India, where there are almost no air pollution monitors.
There are many different reports on how much biomass burning contributes to air pollution in Delhi. Some studies suggest that the contribution is as high as 59 per cent, while some suggest it is very low, perhaps a consequence of measuring annual pollution levels, rather than the winter months. The focus on Delhi misses out the large mass of rural Punjab and Haryana, where there is only anecdotal evidence that farm fires cause thick smoke and impact farmers and their families.
The link between diverting water and reducing air pollution
Traditionally, north Indians did not grow much rice. The phenomenon of cultivating rice in north India is recent, and primarily, for exporting out of the region. In the early stages of its rise in north India, it was cultivated in the month of April. This meant it was harvested in September. Even back then, some farmers chose to burn the residue after the harvest, but the weather conditions in September meant that there was little deterioration in air quality. Winds took the smoke westwards and air pollution remained under control.
This story ended when many more farmers started cultivating the lucrative crop. The groundwater level in Punjab and Haryana started rapidly depleting, since rice is highly water-intensive. Then, the Haryana and Punjab governments passed laws prohibiting the cultivation of paddy before the middle of June in 2009, to arrest the depletion.
Since then, farmers cultivate paddy after the middle of June and harvest it in October and November. This has not only made biomass burning concurrent with the change in weather conditions, but forced more farmers to engage in it. After the implementation of this law, which shortens the crop cycle, farmers don’t have enough time to collect the residue after harvesting and before the next sowing, and rely on burning the residue to prepare the ground.
To some extent, more water diverted to paddy fields would mean that these laws can be repealed and the crop can be grown earlier, so that crop residue burning does not happen in October/November. But there needs to be an examination of the policy of cheap water and power, subsidies on inputs and MSP for rice that encourage non-sustainable water-intensive cultivation.
The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.