The impact of stubble burning and poor air quality in India during the time of COVID-19

27 Jul 2020
Ms Rita Pandey
Ms Anuja Malhotra

A holistic approach by government and farmers alike is needed to address the problem of burning crop stubble, which comes at a huge environmental and health cost

Stubble burning
As the world grapples with a respiratory disease like the Coronavirus, it is important to remember the further respiratory distress that awaits many in North India due to the jump in air pollution caused by annual stubble burning.

The COVID-19 imperative

As the world works to fight the spread of the coronavirus crisis, it is important to not only consider the human health as part of the response, but also planetary health. This includes minimizing additional risks such as poor air quality, which is linked to a number of respiratory illnesses and may exacerbate symptoms related to COVID-19 and add burden to the already stressed health infrastructure.

From October to December 2020, air quality in New Delhi and other cities in north India reached up to 20 times higher than the safe threshold levels defined by the World Health Organization. These high levels of air pollution are often attributed to agricultural fires, as each year India's rice farmers burn the stubble of their harvested crops, contributing to an annual haze that damages the health of those in and around the capital.

Burning crop stubble

With the onset of winter, farm fires become rampant in northern India, particularly in the states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The problem of poor air quality is exacerbated in the already disadvantageous landlocked Delhi, where pollutants get trapped, unlike in coastal cities where they are swept out to sea.

Over the years, parts of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have moved to specialized short-duration varieties of rice-wheat cropping systems. With the adoption of these varieties – rice crops (June/July to October/November) followed by wheat crops (November/December to March/April) – rotation has become popular in areas which earlier produced only wheat or rice in any one farming year. However, this cropping system – perceived as “efficient” – has come at a huge environmental and health cost.

The main reason for paddy (rice crop) stubble burning is the short time available between rice harvesting and sowing of wheat; a delay in sowing wheat adversely affects the wheat crop. The short timeframe available between rice and wheat crops can also be attributed partly to the 2009 Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Act, where paddy transplantation date is fixed for June 20 which pushes ahead the harvesting of rice crop. As a result farmers get less than 20-25 days between two crops, and hence the quickest and easiest solution is to burn the crop residue. It is estimated that 20 million tonnes of rice stubble are produced every year in Punjab, out of which 80% is burnt on the farm. Responding to concerns of farmers due to labour shortage during COVID-19 paddy transplantation date has been advanced to June 10 in 2020. This is unlikely to contain stubble burning.

Stubble burning creates a negative externality in the form of emissions, with implications for climate change and health costs to people in affected regions, as well as disruptions in economic activity (cancellation/delays in flights and trains, and slow road traffic and accidents). Stubble burning emits fine particulate matter (PM2.5), an air pollutant that is a concern for people's health when levels in the air are high; the particles can get trapped inside the lungs and increase the risk of lung cancer by 36%. The cost of air pollution due to stubble burning in India is estimated to be $30 billion annually. Burning 1 tonne of rice accounts for a loss of nitrogen (5.5kg), phosphorous (2.3 kg), potassium (25 kg) and sulphur (1.2 kg) in the soil. Moreover, the heat from burning crop residue kills critical bacterial and fungal populations in the soil, apart from organic carbon.

Since air quality is a public good, central coordination to tackle the problem becomes even more important, implying that the government would need to either share the cost of compensation or the cost of abatement (reducing stubble burning), or both in different measures. Broadly, the application of incentive-based regulation can be a potential cost-effective way to control air pollution.

Effective policy measures and management

Various policy measures at the national and sub-national levels seek to resolve the problem of crop stubble burning in India. A National Policy for Management of Crop Residues is in place, along with a Crop Diversification Programme. According to the law, violators can be charged for non-compliance under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. There are also schemes to promote in situ and ex situ crop residue management through such farm equipment as the “happy seeder”, rotavator and baler. However, there are many gaps in terms of policy design, implementation and awareness.

In terms of policy design, the national programme on crop diversification does not have clear provisions on outreach activities to inform farmers about alternate crop options. Similarly, there is insufficient convergence with other programmes, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, National Rural Livelihood Mission and agro-enterprise related schemes, which could help with the management of paddy stubble or crop diversification. In terms of implementation, much-needed equipment is still unaffordable to many farmers despite subsidy provisions. Constraints in the supply chain and rental markets are other issues impacting the adoption of the happy seeder and other farm machines, and there is little awareness about new technologies and alternate cropping patterns.

Taking a holistic approach

A holistic approach is required to address crop residue burning. This includes a multi-disciplinary and multi-agency setting involving technical agencies, market-based economic tools, supporting agricultural and environmental policies, and awareness and capacity building for farmers.

In the short term, misconceptions among farmers regarding paddy straw management needs to be resolved. These misconceptions include improvement in soil fertility due to stubble burning and reduction in yield due to use of in situ machines. Even though national schemes provide for establishing farm machinery banks to provide hiring services to farmers, there are serious issues of timely availability of machines to farmers. To address the issue of paddy straw burning, crop residue management needs to be made cost-effective for the farmers. This is another priority action that concerned agencies need to deliver on.

In the medium term (the next seven years), there is a need to encourage crop diversification and rotation. While technological interventions for the management of crop residue may be useful in the short term, crop diversification as a policy intervention needs to be emphasized by the government given the multiple environmental externalities of present cropping patterns, such as depleting groundwater, poor soil quality and air pollution. Crop diversification can improve resilience from the effects of greater climate variability and extreme events. It can be implemented in various ways such as crop rotation, poly-cultures, increased structural diversity, or agroforestry.

There also needs to be a central coordinating mechanism for paddy stubble management and crop diversification with adequate resources, and a clear assignment of responsibilities between national and sub-national agencies. The target should be putting a stop on crop residue burning at any cost, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A detailed study involving all stakeholders is required to understand slow progress towards crop diversification in spite of regulatory policy nudges and fiscal policy incentives announced by both central and state governments. A push towards crop diversification package should be a mix of policy measures such as encouragement of agro-business enterprises – possibly under Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India) – farmer awareness campaigns, economic incentives such as minimum support prices for alternative crops, along with infrastructure support such as agricultural inputs for identified alternative crops, cold storage facilities and market promotion mechanisms.

This article was first carried in the Green Growth Knowledge Platform.

Shailly Kedia is a Fellow at TERI. Rita Pandey is Senior Fellow, and Anuja Malhotra a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi.