As the festive season arrives alongside winters in India, people will now have to prepare themselves for massive spikes in air pollution levels, especially in the northern belt of the country. Soon governments will be issuing guidelines, restrictions and appeals to the general public and industries, in order to contain the worsening air quality. One of the factors that we read about every year during this season is crop burning.
There have been several debates around this practice and its impact on the daily lives and the health of people living in vulnerable areas. Yet, there seems to be no concrete solution to this problem even in 2021.
However, many people still don’t know much about crop burning. Why do farmers resort to this age-old technique? Why have authorities failed in providing sure-shot alternatives to farmers that would discourage this practice, and what exactly is the extent to which crop burning is harmful? Here we try to answer some of these questions for you.
What is crop burning?
Crop burning refers to the practice of burning stubble of the paddy crop after monsoons in order to prepare the field for the next crop. The stubble burning usually takes place in the months of April to get rid of wheat crop residue and then in October and November, after crops like rice have been harvested following monsoon, and before rabi crops like wheat, mustard, sunflower etc are sown.
The practice is mostly common in northern states of India like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and even parts of Rajasthan. It involves setting fire to the “stubble” or straws of the crop that has been harvested. According to a report from 2017, nearly 35 million tonnes of stubble is set to fire in Punjab and Haryana alone.
Why is crop burning so problematic?
The adjacent area of Delhi-NCR suffers the most in crop burning season. As per a 2011 report , PM2.5 concentration in Delhi increased by 78% and 43% during the rice and wheat stubble burning periods respectively. Read more about what PM 2.5 is and why its high levels are harmful to our health here.
According to a study, crop burning also leads to the emission of particulate matter and harmful gasses like Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), N2O (Nitrous oxide), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), Carbon monoxide (CO), Carbon dioxide (CO2), and Methane (CH4).
The high levels of pollution, in which crop burning plays a huge role, is impacting the lives and health of people in northern states. In 2018, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) demonstrated that in October and November, a peak burning season in nearby Punjab, about half of all pollution in Delhi can be attributed to agricultural fires on some days.
According to a study from 2019, living in a district with intense agricultural crop-residue burning (ACRB) was associated with a 3-fold higher risk of acute respiratory infection, with children under 5 years of age being particularly susceptible.
So why do farmers still resort to this practice?
Stubble burning is a crime under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and under the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981 and yet it remains a common practice.
Punjab farmers claim that they have been burning paddy stubble for decades now, ever since the government encouraged them to grow the crop in order to overcome India's food shortage. Due to shrinkage in groundwater levels (caused by flooding of fields to sow the crop) Punjab and Haryana both went on to implement the Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act that delayed sowing and transplantation of paddy from May to June in 2009. Violation of the Act led to a penalty of Rs 10,000 per hectare a month or a part thereof and cost of destroying sown or transplanted paddy on farmers.
However, paddy residue takes one-and-half months to decompose, as a result of which farmers are left with a very short window to prepare the field for the winter crop. Stubble burning is considered to be an effective way of getting rid of the residual stubble, thus it helps farmers prepare their field at a relatively faster speed.
Moreover, it is hard for farmers to dispose of the paddy stubble. Due to its low calorific value and high silica content, the stubble can’t be used as animal fodder.
Crop burning is also considered to be an effective way to get rid of weeds on a farm. Another important reason is the cost-effectiveness of the process, as it costs farmers way less than having to remove the stubble manually or via the use of machinery.
Is air pollution the only ill effect of crop burning?
While the spike in air pollution levels is enough a reason for state and central governments to discourage these practices, there are other harmful effects of crop burning too.
This study suggested that one-tonne stubble burning leads to a loss of 5.5 kilogram nitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphorus, 25 kg potassium and 1.2 kg of sulfur from the soil. Stubble burning also increases soil temperature, causing displacement or death of microorganisms. This also means that farmers have to spend extra money to regain the fertility of soil lost due to crop burning. Can it be called a cost-effective technique then, if it incurs additional expenditure to farmers?
There’s more, crop burning also causes the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and Nitrogen oxide gasses which react to form ground-level Ozone. This ground-level ozone affects plants’ metabolism, penetrates, and destroys leaves causing serious effects on crops.
Alternatives to crop burning
A hunt is on for cost-effective and accurate techniques to get rid of crop stubble. Various solutions have been worked upon however the 2 key alternatives which have gained real traction are below:
1. Happy Seeder
The Happy Seeder is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat into the soil, and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch. The Happy Seeder machine costs about Rs. 1.5- 1.6 Lakh. Introduced in 2018, the Super Seeder helps plough the standing paddy residue and sow seeds for the next wheat crop, in a single operation. The machine is technologically superior to the Happy Seeder and is more expensive with a cost of over Rs two lakh.
According to this article: “The paper “Fields on fire: Alternatives to crop residue burning in India” evaluates the public and private costs and benefits of ten alternate farming practices to manage rice residue, including burn and non-burn options. Happy Seeder-based systems emerge as the most profitable and scalable residue management practice as they are, on average, 10%–20% more profitable than burning. This option also has the largest potential to reduce the environmental footprint of on-farm activities, as it would eliminate air pollution and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions per hectare by more than 78%, relative to all burning options.”
Unfortunately the high price of the happy seeder despite the subsidy makes it cost prohibitive for most small farmers. Several CHCs(custom hiring centers) have been set up by the Govt in partnership with big farmers who can afford these machines to enable marginal farmers to rent them. Unfortunately, the owners of CHCs, who had purchased these equipment at 80% subsidy, charge rent from all farmers. For farmers who do not own a lot of land, hiring machines for removing stubble is not a very favourable option.
2. Bio-decomposer capsule or Pusa Decomposer
In Sept 2020, Delhi government and Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa developed a bio-decomposer capsule that can be sprayed over crop stubble to help it degenerate naturally in 20 days.
These capsules, also called Pusa Decomposer, a composition of eight microbes, help ready the land for the sowing of the next crop without the farmers burning the crop residue. Four capsules, which cost just Rs 20, can be used to make 25 litre of solution effective for one hectare of land. The Pusa Decomposer capsules reduce the time it takes to decompose paddy straw. Additionally, unlike burning which erodes the soil quality, this option also makes the land fertile.
IARI has licensed the technology to 12 companies for mass multiplication and marketing of the Pusa Decomposer.
The farmers are cautiously optimistic. They say they are willing to shell out more if the results are good. If not, many would again go back to stubble burning.
Some companies have started collecting stubble for their use, which can then be used in different ways like cattle feed, compost manure, roofing in rural areas, biomass energy, mushroom cultivation, packing materials, fuel, paper, bio-ethanol and industrial production, etc. However these efforts have so far been on a relatively small scale.
What is the Govt doing to discourage crop burning?
There is another facet of this struggle with governments having to convince farmers to let go of an old, cheap and quick technique, which is as difficult as it sounds. But that doesn’t mean measures aren’t being taken to discourage this practice.
Stubble burning was banned by Punjab in 2013, under relevant sections of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution Act), 1981. Then in 2015, National Green Tribunal (NGT) had imposed fines ranging between Rs 2,500 and Rs 15,000 on farmers to prevent them from burning paddy fields.
In December last year, farmers in the northern region of India staged protests against the centre’s plans to implement Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act which amongst other items, imposed fines on farmers for stubble burning. Unfortunately, as a peace offering to farmers, the government of India agreed to dilute fines on crop burning among other compromises like changing the draft Electricity (Amendment) Bill, to keep the negotiations with farmers going.
Awareness campaigns and Monetary incentives
A news report from 2014 suggests that the state government of Punjab also spent as much as 52 lakh on advertisements and awareness campaigns for five years to sensitise farmers regarding ill-effects of stubble burning.
This year, at the state level, the government of Punjab has appointed 8500 nodal officers across the state’s paddy-growing villages to discourage farmers from stubble burning. These officers will monitor incidences of crop burning, hold meetings with farmers to educate them and also arrange crop-residue management machines.
A similar initiative has been taken by the government of Haryana too, which has also offered incentives worth Rupees 7000 per acre to farmers who are willing to switch from paddy to other crops.
Providing alternate solutions free or at subsidized rates
The Delhi government will start preparing the bio-decomposer solution from September 24 and by October 5 it will be prepared. The government will spray the solution free of cost in the farmlands. Notably, last year, the spray was done only in fields growing non-basmati rice, but this year the government has planned to spray the solution in all fields including that growing Basmati rice. It will be sprayed on fields of 844 farmers this year, up from around 300 last year, covering 4,200 acres of paddy fields in the capital from October 5.
Earlier in the same month, the Centre had released funds worth 496 crores to subsidise machinery which comes in handy for the removal of crop residue, in order to discourage farmers from stubble burning. "For the year 2021-22 fund amounting Rs 235 crore has been released for Punjab, Rs 141 crore has been released for Haryana, Rs 115 crore for Uttar Pradesh and Rs 5 crore has been released for Delhi. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and other central agencies also received Rs 54.99 crore," informed Agarwal.
Mr Agarwal said that during the last three years, state governments have established more than 30,900 custom hiring centres(CHCs) of crop residue management machinery to provide equipment to small and marginal farmers.
"Total 1.58 lakh crop residue management machines have been supplied to these custom hiring centres. In the 2020 season, through concentrated efforts, a reduction in the number of paddy burning events has been noted in comparison to 2016. The cases reduced by 64 per cent in Haryana, 52 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and 23 per cent in Punjab," he stated.
What to expect this year?
There is mixed data regarding the crop burning data. As per the data provided by the Haryana Space Applications Centre (HARSAC), the state reported a 27% rise in farm fires in 2020 compared to previous years. Jagminder Nain, joint director (agriculture engineering) at Haryana agriculture department however said, “As per the HARSAC data, the AFLs in the state are more than last year. However, as per our data, the area under stubble burning has decreased as compared to last year.”
The satellite images by US space agency NASA have shown that crop residue burning has already started in several fields in Haryana and Punjab, according to media reports.
It remains to be seen how these efforts play out this year and if we will see an increase or reduction in crop burning in 2021 compared to 2020.
What can you do to protect yourself from poor AQI caused by crop burning?
Here are some measures that you can take to lessen the impact of crop burning on yourself and the environment:
1. If you belong to a farming family, or are related to them, talk to them about the issue of crop burning and how it impacts their lives and that of people in nearby areas due to air pollution.
2. Use social media to share thoughts of farmers on the issues and what deters them from using alternatives to crop burning, so that fault lines in tactics being employed can be brought to the notice of authorities.
3. Crop burning is one of the components that causes a rise in air pollution levels during October and November. If this factor is not in your control, ensure that you act on components that are in your control. For instance, refrain from burning firecrackers during the festive season, avoid participating in campfires or bonfires as a leisure activity during holidays and opt for carpooling or public transport in order to commute.
4. If you are an employer, you can start by ensuring that your employees have access to shared transportation or can avail work from home during the festive season.
5. Use good air quality monitors so that you are constantly updated on your immediate surroundings. Monitors can help you assess what timings you should stick to for outdoor workouts, or to allow children to play outside, take elderly people for their walks etc.
What are some of the measures you think need to be taken to discourage the practice of crop burning? Tell us here.