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BW Businessworld

Environment: No Smoke Without Fire

Stubble burning envelopes Delhi and the NCR in a deadly smog every winter. BW Businessworld examines why the practice is so hard to fight, even though it is such an obvious health hazard

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Was poet Philip Levine really speaking of a city enveloped in fumes, dust particles and smoke of stubble burning on farm fields in thedistance?Inadvertently, though, he does describe the national capital of India in the weeks before the onset of chilly winter. According to a 2015 report on air pollution by IIT Kanpur, the overall contribution of biomass burning to pollution from particulate matter during winter is fairly high. Smoke emanating from crop residue burning on the agrarian lands around Delhi contribute as much as to 17 per cent of PM10 and 26 per cent of PM2.5.  

The irony is that burning stubble erodes nutrients from the soil. In an extensive study published nearly a decade ago, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) pointed out that burning stubble results in loss of nutrients present in crop residues. All of the carbon, 80 - 90 per cent of the nitrogen, 25 per cent of the phosphorus, 20 per cent of the potassium and 50 per cent of the sulphur in crop residues literally go up in smoke, when crop residue is set on fire. Burning crop residue just once erodes 1.43 million tonnes of nutrients from the topsoil. A recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report says an inch of top soil develops across a 1,000 years.

“We have been burning stubble for decades, why is it suddenly hitting everyone so seriously?” is the indignant retort of Yudhvir Singh, National General Secretary of the powerful farmers’ union, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU, Tikait). Incidentally, just three states, Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh, account for 53 per cent of all the crop residue burning across India. Satellite imaging and remote sensing data show fires on agricultural lands across vast swathes of central, southern and eastern India too.

“Burning stubble at this time of the year is not a very good idea, particularly owing to the weather conditions which could aggravate pollution,” says Himanshu Goyal, India Sales and Alliances Leader for the Weather Company (IBM group). “The smoke and carbon generated wouldn’t have anywhere to disperse and thus, just add to the already high pollution levels,” says Goyal. The upshot is dense smog from November through to early February. The mid-level winds are light in this season, so the smoke just hangs  in the air.

Farmers burn stubble to ensure that their fields are not lying fallow. More mechanisation of harvesting and diversification of crops no longer justify land lying idle. Burning the crop residue is a quick fire way of sowing the next crop after the last has been harvested. “I know that governments are trying to register first information reports (FIR’s) against individual farmers. They have done it in Punjab and I have also heard few stories from UP. You know, they (farmers’) are the easiest and soft targets and I can sense a conspiracy in the entire hype about stubble burning,” says Yudhvir Singh.

Statistics, though, belie the contention of the farmers. A World Economic Forum report on the most polluted cities around the world list six Indian cities where the level of  particulate matter (PM) is at 2.5 (please see infographic, Cities gasping for breath). For Delhi and the national capital region (NCR), the smoke from stubble burning is part of the death package, along with the emissions of vehicular traffic.  

Ashok Dalwai, CEO of the National Rainfed Area Authority, points out that stubble burning was an age-old practice that had only attracted attention in the last few years. “Also, in these ensuing decades the pollution contribution from other sources, such as industrialisation, vehicular pollution, construction etc. has also increased drastically,” he points out. Chairman of the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) Bhure Lal, however justifies bringing farmers to book for burning crop residue.

“The government has already given a Rs 1, 200 crore fund for management of stubble burning through various means,” says Lal, adding, “they (governments) have to deal with the issue with a carrot and stick approach.” Lal says that the EPCA had talked to farmers in Punjab, who had gone on record to say that they were aware that stubble burning was a practice that was harmful for both the soil and humans inhaling the smoke (please see interview). So, what prompts farmers to still set crop residue on fire? It is of course, the easiest way of getting rid of the stubble.

Burning the stubble on the field after a harvest is not a practice that is confined to India either. It is an established practice in the UK, New Zealand and Canada too. Burning the stubble though, releases harmful chemicals like polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), referred to as dioxins, into the air. An old but relevant study titled, ‘Socioeconomic and Environmental Implications of Agricultural Residue Burning’  shows that the number of patients with breathing trouble increase by 10 per cent in the rice and wheat belts within 25 days of crop residue being burnt.

The Delhi Dilemma
Stubble burning in distant Punjab, Haryana and west Uttar Pradesh chokes Delhi every year. Winds bearing smoke from the agrarian lands push up Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) every year (please see infographics Air quality in the harvest season and after). Experts say smog turns dense with increase in moisture in the air, to worsen the quality of the air we breathe. “Higher moisture in the air in 2017 made the condition of the air worse. This year our expectation is that it will be no better,” says the EPCA chairman. Bhure Lal says an IIT Mumbai study had pegged the health-related costs of poor air quality in Mumbai and Delhi at Rs 80,000 crore, in which Delhi’s share was much higher. A study by the World Bank group on the impact of pollution in South Asia, titled ‘Economic Costs Of Air Pollution With Special Reference To India’ indicates that the biggest casualty of air pollution was human health (please see infographic What the Smoke  Costs Human Life).

Dalwai say the quality of the air we breathe has many implications. “ One can postulate that these will include costs related to human health, health of other flora and fauna, cost incurred in mitigating equipment, such as masks and air-purifiers, loss of human productivity, etc.,” says he. According to Himanshu Goyal, air pollution is worst in lower lying valleys. “Though rainfall can ‘wash out’ the pollution, little rainfall can be expected from now (October) until February and March,” he says, adding, “And thus, air quality will continue to be very poor across northern India, Uttar Pradesh and eastern India”. So the northern plains are likely to remain shrouded in smog in the winter of 2018 too.

The Solutions
Some manufacturers have managed to make hay while smog shuts out the sun. The Weather Company, an IBM business, says they are highly committed to delivering visible real time data to consumers. The Weather Channel App on Android and iOS as well as the default application in Apple iPhone, Samsung 8 phones and later versions, help deliver a hyper local Air quality index and lifestyle indices every 15 minutes.  

 The market for air purifiers seems to be exploding too. The is laden with a myriad version of air purifiers, from high-cost electric air purifiers, portable carry-along rechargeable air purifiers to non-electric purification bags. A TechSci research report suggests that the market for air purifiers will grow at the pace of 40 per cent CAGR till 2020. Sensing the huge opportunity, giants like Amway India are coming up with their models of air purifiers too.

Experts emphasise though, that attacking the cause was always better than working on secondary tools to tackle poor air quality. Bhure Lal’s solution to this death trap is a cultural revolution in agrarian India to wean farmers away from quick fix methods like burning the stubble of the harvested crop before sowing a new one. The Union government meanwhile, is trying to wean farmers away from stubble burning with carrots. According to Dalwai, the Central Government has offered a special scheme to support the efforts of the governments of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and the national capital territory of Delhi, to address air pollution.

The scheme promotes subsidised machinery required for in-situ management of crop residue. The Centre has approved approximately Rs 1, 152 crore for the scheme for a period of two years upto 2020.  Till 22 October, 2018, Rs 575.2 crore had been released for the scheme. Farmer leader Yudhvir Singh suggests that provincial governments buy the stubble and use it as cattle fodder. The EPCA Chairman says crop residue should be converted to utility items like fertiliser or bio-fuel for power generation.

Perhaps, the collective efforts of farmers, industry and law makers could ease pollution in general and air pollution from burning crop residue in particular. Or else, as Levine said, “The light will come from nowhere and will go nowhere.”

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magazine 27 October 2018 smoking environment