Quick Take

Something’s burning: North India’s smog, a cauldron of faulty policies

| Updated on November 05, 2019

Motorist seen moving through smog in New Delhi (File photo)   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

In crop diversification away from paddy lies the solution. Punjab and Haryana have only just begun

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes/Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.../And seeing that it was a soft October night/Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.  

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

-- TS Eliot

Come October and Delhi, along with the towns of Haryana, is enveloped in a noxious fog. It’s quite the same story year after year – a public health emergency is declared in the Capital as the ‘Air Quality Index’ shoots up to 9-10 times the acceptable level of 50 which is considered to be healthy. The proximate reason for this spike in air pollution – not that air quality is exemplary in other times of the year – is the burning of rice stubble and straw in the fields of Punjab and Haryana after the kharif crop is harvested. To put a stop to this practice, the underlying economic and policy-induced causes need to be addressed.

The extensive cultivation of paddy in Punjab and Haryana is central to the problem. Being a water intensive crop (1 kilogram of rice consumes 3,000-5,000 kg of water), the two States have sought to reduce groundwater drawals in the dry April-May period by mandating that paddy cultivation can only begin around mid-June.

This has pushed the harvest date ahead by six weeks to October when it is almost time to plant the rabi crop. The fields need to be cleared in a hurry, and stubble and straw burning is simply the fastest and cheapest way to do it, besides other options being unaffordable. The Economic Survey 2017-18 observes: “Once the machine has harvested the cost of getting the stubble removed is Rs 3,500 per hectare...it is more economic for the farmers to just burn by using 1 Rupee match box and clear the fields.”

Stubble burning impacts air quality more at this time of the year than in September (when paddy was harvested in the past), because it is less windy these days.

What leaves behind a 40 cm stubble in the first place is the process of mechanised harvesting, which has become commonplace due to the shortage of farm labour. Rice straw is considered useless as fodder in the case of non-basmati rice, because of its high silica content. As for the short time window to plant wheat, a machine named ‘Happy Seeder’ manages to sow the new crop without removing the stubble. However, even with a capital subsidy it is not considered economical, as its demand is seasonal. So, the immediate solution is to pay farmers the labour cost of clearing the straw and stubble, and using the straw for electricity generation and other uses.

But a genuine solution that addresses the issue of water use in the summer months, is for Punjab and Haryana to shift away from rice to growing maize, cotton, fruit and vegetables. To be fair, Punjab and Haryana have taken steps to wean farmers away from rice to cotton and maize.

As for the issue of toxic air, stubble burning is not the only reason. Vehicular pollution and construction activity are equally significant contributors, which explains the toxic air across towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  

Published on November 03, 2019

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