As stubble burning season begins in Haryana and Punjab, Delhi NCR begins to choke yet again because of its consequences. The air quality in the city has already dipped to ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ levels, and the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government is releasing NASA satellite images to explain the haze.
While there are limited technological solutions, stubble burning needs responsible rectification. Band-Aid relief every winter won’t help. Governments at the Centre and in the states need to promote sustained progress. We desperately need to look at nutrition and food security solutions through the lens of the environment. Because the fires in the fields are not just polluting the environment, they are damaging India’s nutrition intake too.
A non-attainment city
The surging particulate matter (PM) from stubble burning only adds to Delhi’s woes as it already has the dubious distinction of being a non-attainment city, primarily because PM concentration has not stayed within the limits of the national ambient air quality standards in the last five years.
The most worrisome aspect is that the burgeoning city is home to nearly 19 million people, and high exposure to poor air quality every year makes more and more people sick and vulnerable. Nearly a quarter of the polluting particles floating in Delhi’s are attributed to biomass burning, of which a significant amount is believed to emanate from burning of crop residue, especially paddy straw, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. It is a worrying situation screaming for action.
And yet, each year we see incidents of stubble burning, even though it has been banned in India since 1981. The burning has continued in Haryana and Punjab even this year – in Haryana, the poll season is being prioritised over stubble burning season, and in Punjab, farmers claim lack of alternatives.
Several government initiatives, including the availability of seed sowing technologies such as ‘Happy Seeder’, machine banks created to offer allied equipment to individual farmers at a reasonable rate, developing techniques of converting stubble into compost through faster processes, or machinery to convert stubble into bales for transport to thermal power plants for use as fuel, are underway to curb pollution from crop residue burning.
Another strategic option that can be realised with technological intervention is developing alternative usage of rice straw and organise secondary agriculture (rice straw can be used to make table-wares, papers, fabric, bio-ethanol, etc.) in a cooperative mode in this sector.
Value addition and government support should invigorate the collection of residues from farms, thereby, converting it to a remunerative step in the process.
These initiatives are promising options that will reduce the direct exposure of farm help engaged in threshing, winnowing and sowing as well as people residing in neighbouring cities to pollutants.
Choosing the right crop, at the right time
There is an underlying need for crop diversification in areas where farmers choose to cultivate wheat close on the heels of paddy harvesting.
Matching paddy sowing time with the monsoon season is attempted each year in the hope that this would benefit, if not reverse, the receding water table. The delay of paddy sowing, a water-intensive crop, results in too little time between paddy harvesting and wheat sowing. Farmers with small holdings are left with little choice, but burn the residues in the fields. Unfortunately, stubble burning happens almost at the same time as the temperature plummets, and it leads to the soot settling closer to the ground. So, what is intended as a low-cost farming practice proves far more expensive in reality due to the high cost of sickness, both among the young and the elderly.
An important assignment awaiting agriculture scientists, who are working towards a long-term solution to crop burning, is developing rice varieties whose sowing and harvesting times can be staggered and working out methods of upland rice farming that needs less water. An even better option would be to promote the cultivation of pulses and other hardy crops (such as jowar and bajra), which need less water and will allow time after paddy harvest for processing of crop residue.
Associated policy interventions to promote more diverse crop cultivation are much needed. Such measures are good not only for restoring the sinking water table, but it will also help improve the nutrition levels for nearly 40 per cent of children, who are underweight in the country, and 50 per cent of young women who are anaemic.
A nutrition-centred agricultural system
We need to revisit agri-priority through a public health and nutrition lens. A nutrition-centred agriculture system needs to span across production and promote sorghum (jowar) and millets, such as bajra, ragi. These crops should be favoured for multiple reasons. First, to reduce exploitation of groundwater as these are ‘C4 crops’ (resistant to water stress) in comparison to cultivation of water-guzzling crops — such as paddy (particularly for dry/rain-fed areas). Second, they have a higher nutritional advantage (iron, calcium).
Adoption of a more nutrition-centred agriculture system, coupled with an effective public distribution system, minimum support price, and procurement of grains by government will help India in the long run.
Only technological solutions and temporary measures won’t help stop stubble burning. We need to reorient our agricultural practices to include nutrition and food security too.
The author is Senior Fellow, Environment & Waste Management, TERI. Views are personal.