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This is the real culprit behind Delhi’s poisonous Diwali air and PM Modi has a fix for it

Groundwater depletion forced the Haryana & Punjab govts to delay the paddy crop, resulting in the rise in air pollution in Delhi & surrounding areas.

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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.

Also read: Band-Aids on stubble burning pollution won’t do. India must tackle it as food security issue

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.

Also read: TERI has solution to stop stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana — convert residue into fuel

The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.

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  1. Along with disincentive for rice, govt can encourage millets (by giving MSP) which need only one or two waterings for the whole crop.

  2. Yet another article on Delhi fog & relationship with stubble burning and yet gain suffering from factual incorrectness and infirmities. How ignorant our AC room based Professors are. The ignorant prof says paddy cultivation and change in harvesting time in PB & HR is recent phenomenon. Truth cannot be farther than that. Want to remind the armchair Prof that Punjab remains the highest marketable surplus rice state in India since more than 30-40 years; result of green revolution. Haryana has also catched up. Contribution of PB in rice central pool is around 90- 110LMT whereas HR contributes around 30 LMT. Other major producers are AP/TEL , Ch’garh , Odisha. Pl remember best basmati rice comes from Amritsar belt in PB & Taraori in HR. However its cultivation is not suited and agriculturally its alien to this part of country given low rainfall and sandy soul. Due to guaranteed MSP for FAQ Rice, uncertainty in Cotton crop production and low demand/ price of basmati rice in overseas market , lack of crop diversification, Punjab farmers are compelled to grow paddy. Further PB farmers are under bonded labour system run by middle men/ financiers. Since rice ecosystem is well ensconced , they don’t allow farmers to go for crop diversification. PB govt under populism provides free water drawn from HP and electricity. Farmers use excess water free, not natural rain water and also excess fertiliser under pressure of middle men resulting in increasing trend in paddy production. There is no truth in shifting of paddy crop from July to October. It’s always like there. More and more area has come under paddy cultivation at the cost of cotton and basmati. High paddy production resulting in excessive stubble and timeline set for water release from canals leave a small window for farmers to clear stubble and prepare farmland for wheat cultivation. Delhites are dying of lung disease and Punjabis of cancer. The only long term solution is to disinsentivise paddy cultivation in PB & HR and go for cro diversification to less water consuming crops. Encourage & incentivise NE states like Assam to triple paddy production for becoming deficient state to surplus. Instruct FCI to procure rice to bare minimum quantity required for PDS. Question is who will bell the fatty cat – not farmers but middle men / financiers/ arhatias – the fund raiser for all political party in PB/ HR. This will be a win win situation for PB/HR as well as Delhi. Though media is highlighting health of Delhi prominently, but health condition of Punjab is much more serious internally.

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