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Asking The Right Questions

It would be unfair to hold the paddy farmers responsible for Delhi’s smog, when they have not been offered eco-friendly and cost-effective solutions

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Large swathes of northern India are once again enveloped by the worst of air pollution, with the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi as its visible victim, as this year’s winter peeps in. The Delhi’s smog is akin to the London smog of 1952. It has been making headlines across the globe, with The New York Times even describing it like the smell of paint. Such reports are highly damning of the country’s environmental health and hurtful for India’s economy, that is still celebrating its pole-vault into the club of top 100 nations, for doing business with ease. A negative image of India across the major capitals of the globe, does not bode well for a country, that is signatory to the Paris Treaty on Climate Change.

Pollution and Economic Losses

A 2013 World Bank study reports that pollution costs India 8.5 per cent of its GDP, besides having to pay dearly in terms of welfare losses. India reportedly loses around $55 billion offsetting its economic growth by 1 per cent.

This winter’s smog has been unsparing in its economic and social ramifications, affecting all strata of society — from the poor rickshaw puller to the swish set partying on the lawns of the rich. It has caused cancellations of scheduled flights into Delhi by a few foreign airlines, shutting down of schools and less than normal attendance of staff at offices. The National Green Tribunal has ordered stoppage of emission causing construction and industrial activities in Delhi NCR, warranting closure of 57 manufacturing units in Gurgaon alone, ranging from small units like brick kilns to manufacturing majors.

The hinterlands of north India are affected as well. In rural areas of Punjab alone, the added annual expenditure on human health, due to stubble burning is estimated at Rs 7.61 crore per year (NAAS, 2017).

Burning of Crop Residues

Of the different kinds of pollutions, agricultural and allied activities constitute one of the major contributors (25 per cent). Of the several triggers, burning of crop residue is critical and has now become a major villain. It releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), that create the ‘big smoke’ and abets wintry fog to become the ‘big smog’.

Traditionally, putting to fire the post-harvest crop residue on the hill slopes by the country’s tribal population practising shifting cultivation has been well recognised as an ecology disturbing cultivation form. Such cumulative areas at about 0.94 million hectares (m.ha), pale into insignificance, when compared to 10.50 m.ha of paddy fields in the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP). The burning of kharif grown paddy to prepare the same piece of land for the winter wheat by the farmers has generated heated debates around air pollution.

It is well worth it, to appreciate that rice and wheat contribute 215 million tonnes to the foodgrain basket of 275 million tonnes (MT). Normally, standing paddy crop is not ready for harvest before 15 October and sowing of wheat that follows it cannot be delayed beyond 20 November. The window of 30-35 days available to the paddy/wheat farmer is not helped much by the technological and managerial options as exist today. In the absence of a financial support, burning the short stubble left behind by the combiner harvested paddy is nothing but a Hobson’s choice before the IGP farmers.

Pollutants and Particulants

An estimated quantum of 23 MT of paddy crop residue goes up in smoke every year, which in tandem with vehicular emission translates into dark clouds. This problem gets compounded with the atmosphere going through its wintering patterns. It is estimated, that burning of one tonne of paddy residue releases 13 kg particulate matter (PM) and 60 kg CO2 among others.

Residue Burning Synges The Soil

Soil stands directly exposed to the adverse impact of residue burning, causing consequential loss of soil organic mater and plant nutrients. Burning causes oxidation and concurrently huge loss of nitrogen and sulphur proportional to 23 MT of paddy stubble, besides release of 9.2 MT of carbon into the atmosphere. The loss of nitrogen alone is estimated at Rs 200 crore annually. The burning also results in loss of moisture in the top soil and destruction of beneficial micro-flora and fauna, debilitating the agricultural productivity and farmers’ income.

Create An Economic Opportunity

The nation’s vision of doubling farmers’ income calls for optimal utilisation of all biological products and not just the grain and fruit. The mindset change requires demonstration of technologically feasible, financially viable and operationally manageable processes of gainfully using paddy straw, and as a raw material in various enterprises. A few options are listed here:

  • Utilise paddy residue as livestock fodder and bedding; deploy straw baling machines to mechanically uproot and create bundles of straw, which when sprayed with urea, will serve as enriched livestock feed and can meet the demand for fodder in South India.
  • Promote both in-situ and ex-situ composting. Accelerate such composting by using bio-agents such as Trichoderma and Aspergillus. Further research is in order on developing microbial consortia for speedy decomposition of residue in 15-20 days.
  •  Adopt rice harvesting machines with concurrent use of specially fitted combines, that have an advanced Straw Management System with turbo happy seeder. This helps uniform spread of straw and simultaneous sowing of wheat.
  • Scale up use of paddy straw for mushroom cultivation; briquetting for electricity, biogas, biofuel, etc.
  • Baled bundles and blocks can be used for making of composite boards, fibre reinforced cement or as admixture in road construction.

Probably, a more permanent solution lies in amending the paddy-wheat crop matrix by substituting paddy with pulses, oilseeds and maize. To make these crops income attractive vis-a-vis paddy, both yield and price issues will need to be addressed. Fortunately, the existing varieties can yield much higher with improved farm management practices in the well-endowed IGP region. A robust Minimum Support Price combined with an assured procurement will incentivise desired crop substitution. Simultaneously, higher crop productivity can compensate for paddy area loss. Breeding for new short duration varieties of paddy will also help in enlarging the window of operations.

It would be unfair to hold the paddy farmers responsible for Delhi’s smog, when they have not been offered suitable solutions that are eco-friendly, cost-effective and easy-to-operate. The farmers are serving the nation’s strategic concern of food security, while working for their family’s income obligations. The need of the hour is a comprehensive package, which answers Delhi’s pollution woes, farmer’s agricultural challenges and the nation’s economThe author is CEO, National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr Ashok Dalwai

The author is CEO, National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India

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