- The smog that clouds north India every winter brings parts of the country to a standstill.
- The crisis is embedded in a larger socio-ecological system and unless a systems approach is adopted for tackling it, no tangible outcome can be expected.
- In this commentary, Sayanangshu Modak from the Observer Research Foundation writes on short-sighted policies and measures that fail to address the recurrent problem.
Winters in north India paint a dystopian picture. Hazardous smog and poor visibility bring life to a standstill. The Hollywood movies prophesising an imminent apocalypse resurface from the corners of the subconscious.
However, unlike Hollywood flicks that merely tickle our adrenal glands, the smog of north India is quite real and potentially fatal. It is scripted by the follies of various short-sighted policy measures.
A common thread that binds them together is the narrow approach to merely address the symptoms of the ailment or its manifestations without looking at the ultimate cause. Moreover, the crisis is embedded in a larger socio-ecological system and unless a systems approach is adopted for tackling it, no tangible outcome can be expected.
A major myth that needs to be busted is the common perception that the burgeoning crisis can be chiefly attributed to the single act of crop-residue burning. According to an international study, the contribution to the total PM2.5 by the agriculture sector is very low (~ 16 µg/m3). The residential sector (~ 80 µg/m3) and industrial emissions (~ 70 µg/m3) remain the bulk contributors to the region’s winter woes. However, it is important to consider that the bulk of the stubble-burning takes place within a span of two to three weeks, during the period intermittent between kharif and rabi.
Furthermore, government policy at curbing groundwater use by enforcing a delay in sowing time to match with the monsoon has further reduced the time needed to prepare the field before rabi. This has further contributed to increased instances of setting the field alight. The simultaneous burning of stubble across large parts of north India, coupled with the prevailing weather conditions, lead to a sudden spike in Air Quality Index (AQI). Dousing the fire is a necessary condition to improve the AQI in the large urban-agglomerations of north India, but it is not a sufficient one to tackle the issue at large.
With this submission, it becomes essential to dissect the phenomenon and identify the root cause of the problem. Crop residue is mostly contributed by two main cereal crops that are grown during the kharif season – paddy and maize.
Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have been the success stories of the Green Revolution in India. It resulted in an increased acreage and yield of paddy and catapulted paddy to become the single most dominant kharif crop in the region, replacing legumes. However, the issue of residue-burning acquired its present form only after 1986 when mechanised harvesting began in the rice-growing belts of North India.
Prior to the mechanisation, farmers would leave the crop residue in the fields for 4-6 weeks where it gradually decomposed and improved the fertility of the soil. The mechanisation enabled the farmer to work on a greater parcel of land while reducing the time spent in the field. It increased the profitability of cultivating paddy and was ably complemented by a strong MSP (minimum support price) regime, the availability of infrastructure to extract and divert water.
As a consequence of this, after the harvest, fields upon fields of a foot-long paddy stalk started dominating the rural landscape. Setting it on fire became the most feasible option considering the constraints of time before utilising the same parcel of land for the next season.
The government interventions at managing the crisis of stubble burning have only looked at the issue in its narrowest perspective. The efforts have mostly been towards curbing the act of crop-residue burning through campaigns, penalising farmers who burn stubble and incentivising the panchayats through awards and recognition for being able to curb the menace.
Other efforts that have been tried include in-situ management of stubble by chopping it into small pieces and spreading it in the soil, finding alternative uses of paddy straw for generating biogas, or using crop residue pellets with coal for power generation. However, all these interventions have failed to hit the nail on its head.
The most fundamental question that needs to be asked at this juncture is — why grow paddy at all? Paddy cultivation constitutes enormous negative externalities to the environment. It has resulted in the depletion of groundwater in large parts of Punjab and Haryana with very little incremental gains.
The production of rice is already at an all-time high, contributing to self-sufficiency of food grains in the country. Moreover, due to a good procurement system in the states of Punjab and Haryana, the wholesale prices of paddy has remained above the minimum support price between 2016-2018.
Coupled with the provision of state governments in Punjab and Haryana to provide free electricity for agricultural use and a complete absence of legislation to limit the extraction of groundwater, farmers have every incentive to continue growing paddy.
The need of the hour is to diversify food grain production and practice mixed-cropping. The shift from paddy to other crops like maize and pulses is a pressing requirement. Theses crops are not just water-efficient and well suited for the region, but they would also ensure a regular supply of fodder where the requirement is to the tune of 10.58 and 9.95 metric tonnes in Punjab and Haryana respectively.
This would create a functional circular economy around crop residue which is absent in the case of paddy due to high silica content.
The government should prioritise an incentive-based system like better price signals, establish a sound marketing infrastructure and initiate better procurement policies for maize and pulses. Often the farmer is unaware that the government even sets an MSP for crops like pulses and oilseeds. A concerted effort is needed to catalyse the shift from paddy and break the agriculture-air-water nexus that plagues the environment.
[Sayanangshu Modak is with the Observer Research Foundation]
Banner image: Close-up of crop residue, July 1993. Photo by NRCS Montana.