Environment going up in smoke

| | in Oped

Crop stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab has added enormously to Delhi’s pollution woes. Governments must consider Nepal’s example of monetarily awarding farmers who keep away from the ecologically-destructive practice

As the world deliberates a deteriorating climate at Paris COP21, the urgency of finding a solution is being felt acutely in New Delhi. The capital is currently undergoing one of the worst spells of air pollution in recent times. An alarmed High Court has already pulled up the Delhi Government regarding measures being taken to contain pollution levels. Though the Government has responded with a decision to limit cars on the road, based on even-odd registration numbers for specific days, it still remains to be seen whether the initiative is able to capture people’s imagination and find traction.

The noxious smog has become an inseparable part of Delhi’s winters, but this year the post Diwali Air Quality Index  has plummeted, thanks to the burning of agricultural waste and crop stubble around Delhi. These fires compound existing air pollution problems. And to make matters worse, the Government departments concerned seem to be in no position to stop the burning practices inspite of being armed with a recent National Green Tribunal order that directs the four north Indian States of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to immediately stop crop stubble burning. The lack of a scientific assessment of the problem and the unavailability of urgent remedial measures are also resulting in the authorities being unable to comprehensively educate the farmers and discourage them from this very polluting practice.

Punjab, considered as the grain bowl of India, produces around two-thirds of India’s food, with wheat and rice being the dominant crops. But, of late, Punjab is emerging as the most difficult State to rein in as far as prevention of crop stubble burning is concerned. Every year, Punjab alone burns nearly 12 million tonnes of rice straw, and this is reflected even in the satellite images released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USA, of the Punjab region. The October 31 images show a large number of fires over millions of hectares of agriculture fields of Punjab.

The crop stubble burning in the State accentuates the pollution problem as the smoke generated by these burning fields is carried by wind and adds to the pollution woes of Delhi. Burning of rice straw emits trace gases like carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide and a large amount of particulate matters, which adversely affect human health as well as the environment. According to a research conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University, 80 per cent of the  farmers still adopt crop stubble burning as a common practice, while being oblivious to its harmful environmental impact.

The biomass plants installed by the Punjab Energy Development Authority were expected to provide the alternative to burning of crop stubble. The stubble is burnt in the biomass plants to produce electricity, but the appeal of these plants has eroded significantly in recent times, as practical difficulties have hindered the usage. For instance, the biomass plants generate ash, whose disposal has become a major issue. Add to this, the quantity of paddy straw used in these plants is as low as 20 per cent, with other agricultural waste making up the rest of the raw material. This brings down the motivation of farmers to depend on biomass plants as an alternative to crop stubble burning.

The unabated practice of crop stubble burning is now assuming larger proportions as the pollution and heat is no longer limited to creating a polluting environment for urban settlements. According to a study conducted by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, the burning of agricultural waste is causing air pollution and also contributing significantly to the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas. According to the study, over the past 15 years, agricultural burning has increased rapidly and has released enormous amounts of black carbon due to insufficient combustion. The black carbon particles cause an intense greenhouse gas effect and contribute to an increase in temperatures.

Given the far-reaching consequences of this ecologically damaging practice, countries such as the United Kingdom banned crop stubble burning as early as 1993. The NGT has taken a welcome step of banning it recently, but it is losing the plot due to its inability to implement the order. In its efforts to put an end to crop stubble burning, India can learn from Nepal, which implemented the initiative of Reverse Auction, wherein the farmers are asked the minimum amount they would be willing to accept to stop burning their largest paddy field in the following season. This auction is first carefully publicised through door-to-door visits and through a farmers’ information meeting held in every village. Each farmer is then provided with a bid form and asked to put down a bid for the amount he or she should be paid (per unit of land) for not burning straw.


The Nepal example proves that the payment mechanism can be effectively used to stop farmers from burning crop stubble and other biomass.

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