Context: Stubble Burning in northern parts of India, especially in Punjab, has been a matter of debate for a long time now. The reason given is that stubble burning adds to the extreme pollution in Delhi and adjoining areas which is already suffering from severe quality air. In this context, it is important to examine the impact of stubble burning and the possible solutions to this problem.
Prelims: General issues on Environmental Ecology, Bio-diversity, and Climate Change
Mains: GS III- Major crops cropping patterns in various parts of the country, different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage, transport and marketing of agricultural produce and issues and related constraints; e-technology in the aid of farmers.
What is stubble burning?
- Stubble burning is a common practice followed by farmers to prepare fields for sowing of wheat in November as there is little time left between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat.
- Stubble burning results in the emission of harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide along with particulate matter.
As Punjab is facing a groundwater crisis due to large scale paddy cultivation, the Punjab government in order to conserve water resources, brought a law – Punjab Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act 2009 to mandatorily delay transplantation of paddy beyond June 10, when the most severe phase of evapotranspiration is over. This law has been blamed for creating the bad air crisis of North India- especially Delhi- by delaying harvesting to end-October and early November when atmospheric and wind conditions cause particulate matter and gases from burning paddy stubble to hang close to the surface.
Impacts of stubble burning:
- Health: Stubble burning has been identified as a major health hazard and a reason for breathing illness, irritation of eyes and respiratory tract diseases.
- Air pollution: Stubble burning releases toxic pollutants like Methane, Carbon Monoxide (CO), Volatile organic compound (VOC) in air. Also, it leads to a spike in Particulate Matter levels, contributing between 12 and 60 percent of PM concentrations.
- Smog: Clouds of ash and smoke from stubble burning can travel more than a thousand kilometers aided by the Westerly winds coming from the Mediterranean region and create obstinate and non-clearing clouds. Smog formed of the smoke can increase the levels of pollutants by manifolds in the air leading to poor visibility and causing accidents.
- Soil nutrition: Burning husk on the ground destroys the nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium from the topsoil, making it less fertile. The heat generated by stubble burning penetrates into the soil, leading to the loss of moisture and useful microbes.
- Economic loss: Crop residue holds high productive value in the biofuel and fiber industry. Burning it deprives the farmers of higher economic returns.
Even though farmers are aware that the burning of straw is harmful to health, they do not have alternatives for utilizing them effectively. The farmers are ill-equipped to deal with waste because they cannot afford the new technology that is available to handle the waste material.
Experts say that with less income due to crop damage, farmers are likely to be inclined to light up their fields to cut costs and not spend on scientific ways of stubble management.
The need of the hour is stopping this practice and applying logical solutions in order to reduce air pollution without increasing farmers' crop production costs.
It is important to note that stubble burning is not the only or the major cause of Delhi's pollution but it has been contributing significantly to it. According to the Ministry of Earth Sciences' air quality monitor SAFAR, smoke from stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana accounted for 44 percent of pollution in Delhi on November 1, 2019, the highest this year.
Essentially, we come to these solutions:
- Reduce paddy area/production: Punjab achieved the highest productivity in the country and contributed maximum among all States to the central pool of rice procurement after the National policy of food sufficiency.
- In the process, the area went up from 2.6 million hectares in 2001 to 3 million hectares in 2017; production went up from 9 million tonnes to 12.5 million tonnes.
- Punjab dug deeper to get groundwater and caused long-term damage to itself.
- Over 70% of blocks in Punjab are in the dark zone on underground water stocks, according to central government estimates.
- At current rates of depletion, Punjab’s entire subsurface water resource could be exhausted in a little over two decades.
- Attempts at diversification did not take off because of the difference in net farm returns and market risks.
- A rice farmer earns about ₹57,000 per hectare whereas maize in a maize-wheat combination would set them back by about ₹15,000-17,000. The farmer will not bear this burden.
- If the idea is to reduce the area of common paddy by half a million hectares, resulting in a reduction of output of 2 million tonnes, the Central government has to step in and support this change for the next five years.
- This half-a-million hectare should be in water-stressed blocks and can be encouraged to shift to maize or any other crop. Another one lakh hectare can shift to basmati production.
- Allow farmers to plant/transplant paddy before June: There exist strong arguments to prevent over-exploitation of groundwater especially if farmers cultivate rice in April/May. The free power provided to the tubewells needs to be reconsidered. This amount of about 6000 crores may be shifted to direct bank transfers as suggested by policy experts.
- Procurement: Marketing and procurement of crop residue like husk are also being carried out in these states. The government should collaborate with cement, packaging, textiles and other industries for husk/hull or stubble collection to use it proficiently.
- This will help the farmers in earning more economic profits. MGNREGA workers can be allowed to weed out the crop stubble from paddy fields manually and mechanically.
- Compressed Bio-Gas (CBG) can be produced from biomass and organic waste sources including paddy stubble. Compressed Bio-Gas has properties similar to the commercially available natural gas and can be used as an alternative renewable fuel.
- Distribute “happy seeders”: The “happy seeder” is the most talked-about solution. Direct seeders do help but have limitations.
- First, the seeder has to operate within about 4-5 days of the harvest.
- The effectiveness depends on the moisture (not too moist, not too dry) present in the soil at the time of seeding. This requires a good understanding of soil conditions.
- The agronomic practices need to change particularly with regard to the application of fertilizer and irrigation. These machines may be used only during the 15-day window in a whole year.
- Awareness: Youth clubs, Kisan camps, radio, and television campaigns have been started to spread awareness of scientific crop residue management. Trained cadres of agriculture scientists, assistants and workers can be deployed to create awareness clarify doubts about machines and disseminate information on residue procurement.
The problem is complex and needs a solution. But the solution should take into consideration the economic condition of farmers, the scientific options available and the willingness of the Central government to change policy and fund a major part of the expenditure. Blaming the farmers alone will not do; citizens need to put in their bit too.
Proactive government intervention, aggressive media campaigns, and private industries should come together to the rescue of the farmer and the environment and solve the stubble burning issue in a time-bound manner.