North India is once again engulfed by a thick layer of smog as rice stubble burning across Punjab and Haryana continues unabated, contributing to high levels of air pollution in the region. Poor air quality has already spurred radical action from the Supreme Court of India, which ordered authorities in New Delhi and nearby cities to shut offices and demanded action to halt crop waste fires.
Far from a mere nuisance, pollution from stubble burning poses a serious risk to the health and safety of people. In 2019, 20 per cent of all deaths in the country were attributable to air pollution, costing an estimated 1.36 per cent of GDP. The pandemic has only heightened the risk, with research showing higher Covid-19 mortality rates in places with long-term exposure to air pollution. With crop residue burning contributing 15 per cent of India’s total air pollution, finding practical, effective, and sustainable solutions to curb the practice is critical.
Several innovative measures have been developed to reduce stubble burning. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute developed a microbe, Pusa, that hastens decomposition and converts stubble to compost within 25 days, improving soil quality as a result. A tractor-mounted extension machine called Happy Seeder sows wheat while simultaneously removing straw and depositing it over the sown land as mulch. These technologies, though impressive, have high operational costs. Likewise, state governments have set up distilleries that use straw to generate ethanol, but since farmers bear the cost of collecting, baling, and transporting the residue, burning is still the cheapest option available.
We propose a solution that gets to the root of the problem: farmers in the western Indo-Gangetic Plain should grow less rice. Simply put, if farmers grow crops other than rice, there will be no need for stubble burning.
Green Revolution and stubble burning
That may seem like a radical plan, and it would indeed be a significant change, but it is not without precedent. The rice-wheat cropping system that currently dominates the Indo-Gangetic Plain was born of the Green Revolution, when the introduction of varieties offering higher yields with lower maturation times made it possible to grow both rice and wheat on the same field within the same year. Prior to that, farmers in the western part of the Indo-Gangetic Plain grew wheat and those in the east grew rice.
The introduction of rice to the western Indo-Gangetic Plain helped India meet the calorific needs of its population, but it also planted the seeds of stubble burning. Over time, the rice-wheat cropping pattern led to the overuse of groundwater sources in the region, causing farmers to move the rice-cropping season towards the end of June to coincide with the monsoon. This shift left a small window between the rice harvest and wheat sowing. Because removing the rice stubble left after harvesting is labor-intensive and costly, burning became the best, least expensive option available for farmers to clear their fields.
A sustainable solution
Rice farming is simply not well suited to the western Indo-Gangetic Plain, leading not only to stubble burning, but also deteriorated soil quality and depleted groundwater resources. Diversifying away from rice offers the most sustainable solution to these issues. It would also help to make diverse, nutritious foods more readily available, addressing India’s endemic malnutrition problem.
Instead of rice, farmers could grow nutritious, water-efficient crops such as maize, groundnut, and kharif pulses like moong, urad, and arhar. While some of these crops, like maize, are already procured at a minimum support price (MSP), the government can further support diversification through other innovative measures. For example, the Haryana government launched the Mera Pani Meri Virasat scheme, under which farmers are provided Rs 7,000 per acre if they diversify more than 50 per cent of the land that they use to grow kharif season paddy. So far, 98,000 farmers have registered to do so. These kinds of price assurances can trigger a lasting change in cropping patterns.
Crop diversification at this large scale will also require the private sector to invest more in the procurement of non-cereal crops. This would build a market of assured buyers willing to offer competitive rates. It would also assuage farmers’ fears that their incomes might decline upon diversifying away from the MSP-supported rice.
Encouraging farmers in the western Indo-Gangetic Plain to give up rice will take considerable effort from the government and the private sector, but the benefits are clear and the dire situation in North India demands bold action. There are many ways to curb stubble burning. Only crop diversification offers a sustainable means to provide Indians with both cleaner air and healthier diets.
Prabhu Pingali @prabhupingali is the founding director, Payal Seth @payalseth13 is an economics researcher, and Bhaskar Mittra @bhaskarmittra is the associate director at Tata-Cornell Institute @TataCornell, Cornell University, USA. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)