Delhi Drowns In Smog while Rural Punjab Farmers Burn Rice Stubble As Subsidies Discourage Alternative Crops

In the worst week of air pollution in the Indian capital this winter, rural farm fires on average contributed to 25% of urban pollution concentrations. Hundreds of kilometres to the north, Punjab, the main source of the pollution, had missed a government-declared target to halve the number of seasonal crop stubble fires – although progress is being made. Health Policy Watch looked at the plight of Punjab farmers and why government tactics so far have failed to curb crop burning in Gurdaspur, Punjab and Delhi.  

GURDASPUR, PUNJAB – Harpinder Singh of Badehari village in northwest Punjab stands with smoke all around him, as the fumes from burning rice paddy stocks from his farm and those of his neighbours, billow up, beginning a long, airborne journey to India’s capital, Delhi. 

He’s one of thousands of farmers, in this strategically located rural state north of the capital, who is setting fire to the stubble to quickly clear his fields for the winter-time planting of wheat. And despite government efforts to encourage alternatives, burning the crop waste remains the cheapest and easiest method.  

“We are the ones who suffer due to stubble burning. We are the ones who inhale this air. We are helpless and left with no option but to burn. Government has failed to help us and look into our problems.”

Punjab missed its target to halve the number of crop stubble fires following this autumn’s rice harvest – although progress is being made.  As of 16th November, there had been 33,000 incidents of crop burning – about a third less than last year.

Why farmers burn paddy stubble

Farmers in Gurdaspur, Punjab, speak to Health Policy Watch. Top: Harpinder Singh. Bottom left: Jaspal Singh. Bottom right: Mukhtar Singh. Picture: Bishamber Bittu

It’s a practice followed largely by small-scale farmers who find it very economical to do so. Many are now being told it damages soil nutrients. Most, like Harpinder Singh, know the smoke hits their families’ health before it hits faraway Delhi. 

Farmers like Singh say they are ready to stop growing rice if the government were to set an assured price on replacement crops – such as millet, bulghur, oilseeds, and other traditionally grown pulses and legumes, which also consume less groundwater, a scarce resource in Punjab, and happen to be healthier options too.

But for now, it’s a matter of simple economics. The central government offers a minimum support price, a guarantee of sorts, for the rice paddy harvest; for this year’s harvest, it was INR 2,183 or about $US 26 per quintal – a unit of mass commonly used in the grain trade equal to 100 kilograms. 

Thanks to the support price, the returns on rice growing, which produces a stiff stalk that cannot easily be ploughed back into the earth, are better than the other options.  There is a very narrow window in which farmers have to harvest the paddy crop, get rid of the stubble, and then prepare the land for wheat. Labour to mechanically remove the stubble is expensive, government-furnished machines can be both expensive and unavailable in a timely manner for small or marginal farmers. 

In conversations with Singh and a few other farmers in Gurdaspur, a district also bordering Pakistan, the narrative is strikingly similar.  

Input costs are INR 15,000-20,000 ($180-$245) for seeds, labour, fertilisers, and pesticides. Then there’s diesel to run generators for pumping water. At the end of the day, farmers say they’re fortunate to make around INR 10,000-20,000 ($120-254) per acre. Over a third of the approximately 1.1 million land holdings in Punjab are managed by small and marginal farmers.

‘No option but to burn’

Mukhtar Singh says, “With land holdings 2 to 2.5 acres what do you expect? Weather is not favourable, our crops get destroyed. The government has not compensated us for flood-affected crops. We are left with no option but to burn as it doesn’t cost.”

“We are lucky we can get food for our family otherwise living conditions are difficult,” Harpinder Singh says. “Expenditure is huge per acre. Seven hundred for cutter (machines), INR 2500-2600 for pickup, INR 4000-5000 for sowing, Diesel is expensive, INR 3500 for pesticides. The total overhead cost is about INR 15,000 per acre. If God is bountiful there is a profit, otherwise, a farmer‘s fate is doomed.” 

Jaspal Singh says, “Our earnings depend on fate. Floods this year have destroyed us. Our expenditure is INR17,000 to 20,000 per acre. If we leave rice what should we grow? We don’t get a good MSP [government guaranteed price] on oilseeds, pulses etc.”

How much of Delhi’s pollution is from farm fires?

The smoke began getting bad on 2nd November. There were over 20,000 fire incidents in just the first week of the month. Hundreds of kilometres downwind, Delhi became swathed in thick and extremely hazardous air pollution. 

Delhi’s smog was so thick that visibility fell drastically and schools were shut for two weeks. Peak pollution levels reached 600-800 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) on 3rd and 4th November in parts of the Capital and its bordering cities, whereas the WHO’s safe guideline is an average of 15 µg/m3 for 24 hours. After several days of this, farm fires came under scrutiny from India’s Supreme Court.

The situation is repeated annually and it remains complex but the nuance is important. Several states burn the stubble but the focus is on Punjab as most of the fires happen there. 

It’s done largely by small-scale, lower-income farmers trying to maximise their earnings. It invariably leads to a political blame game. The courts get involved. Scientists and experts continue to point out that this is a year-long battle and plead, once again, for year-round action. And questions are raised why after millions of dollars allocated and at least a decade of extreme winter pollution nothing seems to get done. 

Farm fires are not the only significant source of Delhi’s pollution

Air pollution researchers have underlined the direct correlation between fires burning north-west of Delhi and its air pollution.  Punjab’s fires are also visually dramatic with copious amounts of smoke rising from farm fields. 

This is coupled with dramatic satellite images showing smog from crop fires in both Punjab and Haryana (the state lying between Punjab and Delhi) as well as neighbouring Pakistan travelling across much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. That plain stretches about 2,000 kilometres across northern India south of the Himalayan foothills east to Bangladesh. 

Although Punjab is a small state (bigger than Taiwan, smaller than Sri Lanka) at the western end of this, such images paint a compelling picture of crop stubble burning as a major source of Delhi’s pollution. 

Even so, other sources should not be ignored, experts point out, underlining the importance of nuance. 

While the Punjab may account for 93% of the fires burned across northern India, so far this season, it doesn’t account for most of Delhi’s pollution, they say. The daily contribution of the smoke to Delhi’s pollution from stubble burning from outside is tracked and reported daily by the Air Quality Management Department of the Central government.

In the most polluted weeks, farm fire contribution to air pollution averaged 25%  

The Indo-Gangetic plain stretches about 2,000 kilometres across northern India south of the Himalayan foothills east to Bangladesh.

For the worst pollution week this season, i.e. 2nd to 8th November, Delhi’s PM 2.5 averaged 292 micrograms/cubic metre according to data analysed by Health Policy Watch. The stubble burning contributed 25%. 

Currently, the central government’s Decision Support System for Air Quality Management attributes 10-15% of the pollution to Delhi vehicles; another 5-10% to road dust, construction, energy and other sources in the megacity; and up to 30% from neighbouring areas in the broader Delhi area, known as the National Capital Region (NCR). Other sources include thermal power plants, industries and household fires for cooking and heating. 

So while the farm fires may push air pollution into a ‘severe’ category,  75% of the capital’s pollution still comes from other sources. Once the farm fires largely end around mid-November, these other sources continue to be produced and remain trapped in the atmosphere around the city during the remainder of the winter season, which is characterized by low winds and low rainfall.

Politics gets in the way of real solutions  

As Delhi got smothered and the health crisis hogged the headlines, two leading political parties battled it out once more – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Narendra Modi, which governs India, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which governs both the states of Delhi and Punjab. 

India’s environment minister, Mr Bhupender Yadav, called the Delhi state chief minister, Mr Arvind Kejriwal and AAP party leader a “liar” – accusing the party of not providing farmers with an alternative to crop burning, and turning Delhi into a “gas chamber”. 

He cited data showing 93% of almost 25,000 fires till 9th November were from Punjab, a state controlled by the AAP.

AAP’s Ms Reena Gupta hit back saying Prime Minister Modi’s “WhatsApp university minister only knows how to peddle lies against @ArvindKejriwal.” 

She cited data showing Punjab’s fire count was down 55%, the sharpest decline in two years. AAP’s strategy has also been to point out that pollution solutions is not a Delhi or a Punjab problem alone – but a pan India, i.e., central government problem. 

Reforming government farm subsidy policies to support alternative crops, whose harvest residue doesn’t need to be burned, for instance, is an issue that can best be resolved by the central government, not individual states. 

‘Slight declines’ won’t help as fires go below a key threshold 

The rival claims aren’t entirely wrong or right. They must be read along with other data and inputs which calls for a nuanced understanding. 

With reference to the data cited by AAP, there is indeed a substantial reduction of fires compared to a year ago, says weather and air pollution modelling expert Dr Gufran Beig. 

But a much lower threshold of fires needs to be attained, in order to prevent large quantities of smoke from travelling to Delhi, he also explains. 

Beig was the founding project director of the Central government’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the first government agency to report daily on “source contributions” to Delhi’s pollution. [Unfortunately, since Beig´s retirement, SAFAR has discontinued that service, leaving analysts exclusively dependent on just one reporting source, the central government´s Decision Support platform]. 

Beig estimates the seasonal or monthly threshold to be around 500 to 700 fires this season, as compared to the 25,000 fires seen so far. 

Imagine the route from Punjab and neighbouring Haryana states to Delhi as a wind tunnel or a ¨pipeline¨, he says – one formed by geographic and climatic conditions.

“Regular, non-stop fires mean pollution is being continuously pumped into Delhi. A slight decline in farm fires doesn’t help. There’s a threshold level of about 500-700 fires. 

If there’s sufficient wind speed then the pollution rises up to a height of 1-1.5 kilometres. By the time it gets to Delhi 150-200 kilometres away, this channel of smoke loses energy, descends and gets trapped in Delhi’s stagnant air. If the number of fires drops to 3,000-5,000 [in the season] it hardly makes a difference,” he said.

‘Murder of people’s health’: Supreme Court calls upon law enforcement to halt crop fires 

A picture from the same window in Delhi two months apart. Above: AQI 78, 8th of September, 2023, below: AQI 479, 3rd November, 2023

Back in Delhi, and after the first week of ‘severe’ air pollution, when PM 2.5 levels rose above 250 micrograms/cubic metre, India’s Supreme Court stepped into the political fray with strong comments of its own – aimed at the central government. 

Choking air quality is responsible for the “murder of people’s health“, the court stated, in an order on 7 November. 

The burning of crop residue in Punjab, as well as other neighbouring states, including Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, is a key factor behind the massive spike in Delhi’s air pollution every winter, the court told the central government. 

“We want it stopped. We don’t know how you do it, it’s your job. But it must be stopped. Something has to be done immediately.” 

In its order, the Supreme Court lamented, “The residents of Delhi have been struggling with health issues because we do not seem to find a solution year after year” before directing the four states to stop crop burning “forthwith” and made the in-charges of local policy circles responsible, under the supervision of each state’s two top-most police and civil officials. 

Within the first two days, about 250 police cases were filed by the State of Punjab’s administration against farmers – up from a total of only 18 on the day before the court order.  

For several days, the fire count fell sharply from almost 2,600 on 7 November to less than 850 two days later. Then on 10 November, fires rose again averaging almost 2,000 a day over six days till 15th November. The share of stubble fire in Delhi’s overall pollution load remained a little lower – 19.5% as compared to 25.7% for six days prior.  But that was still enough to push Delhi’s pollution to the category of ‘severe’.

Political solutions, not policing, are needed  

Delhi’s haze of 2nd November, 2023: The barely visible building is about 700 metres away, when the hourly PM 2.5 level in this location was a little over 450 micrograms/cubic metre (µg/m3). The WHO’s safe limit for a day is 15 µg/m3.

Many point out that this is not a policing problem but a political and policy challenge. Farmers, a politically sensitive sector of India’s economy and society, should not face legal action for burning fires when pure economics leaves them few other options. 

The farm sector accounts for about 45% of India’s workforce so applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle here, to marginalized smallholders, would also be political suicide. 

What’s needed, more fundamentally, experts, backed by the Supreme Court say, is a shift away from rice paddy growing in Punjab. 

Rice is not a staple locally. It was not grown traditionally as there is insufficient water in the region. In Sangrur, one politically important constituency, the water table has fallen by 25 metres in the past two decades. Sangrur is also one of the areas of Punjab where there have been the most crop stubble fires

Rice began to be grown widely in Punjab only several decades ago, when in the face of food shortages, the central government incentivized local farmers to begin cultivating the crop, offering them a  minimum support price (MSP), an assured price. 

The Supreme Court has called for a policy push to drop the rice subsidy and shift it to other crops. It’s a plan that’s been bandied about for years but the court now wants this done quickly. 

Ineffective use of funds to support mechanical management?

Current policies of both the Centre and the state, each governed by rival political parties, are under scrutiny. But in both cases, they have focused largely on incentivizing mechanical management of the crop stubble – rather than tackling the thorny subsidy issue. 

To this end, the Central Government allocated about US$ 400 million to a number of rural states for crop residue management. Reports show that 30% of these funds have gone to Haryana which has only 7% of the fires, while only 46% of this has gone to Punjab which has 93% of the fires. 

In Punjab, meanwhile, the state government also made assurances at the start of the harvest season that it would supply balers, and machines to remove the stubble and fold it into bales rather than burning it. The bales can be used for several purposes including to a limited extent in thermal power plants. 

The plan was to remove 11.5 million tonnes of stubble which is about half of how much was estimated to be produced this year. About six weeks later, a report shows that only 3.3 million tonnes was managed mechanically – or just 15% of the total stubble residue which needs to be removed. 

The Punjab government could supply only about 500 of the over 1,800 balers initially proposed. There have been similar problems with other machines, called Happy Seeders, which can sow the wheat crop, while simultaneously turning over the rice stubble in fields. 

Tens of thousands have been provided for hire by the government with a 50% subsidy on rental fees. But there are frequent complaints that either there aren’t enough to go around on the few, post-harvest days all paddy farmers usually need them or that even the reduced fees are too much.

Farm fire crackdown: Shaky implementation 

There have meanwhile been a series of reports alleging that Punjab State or local officials allegedly swindled farmers out of the subsidies that they were supposed to receive for the lease of stubble removal machinery. 

Another report suggests there’s a systemic way adopted to avoid satellite detection of farm fires by starting these after surveillance ends. In one case, farmers reportedly forced an official who had arrived on the scene to prevent stubble burning, to actually light such a fire – in protest  against the crackdown on fires without attractive alternatives. 

Health Policy Watch tried to contact at least three representatives of the Punjab government including the minister in-charge for a comment. As of publication, none had replied. 

Meanwhile, Harpinder Singh, the farmer from Gurdaspur, says he was offered the lease of a “Super Seeder – another machine that can mechanically grind the stubble, at a subsidised price. 

“But even after that it is beyond the reach of a marginal farmer,” he lamented, adding that manpower to bind the ground stubble into bales is also unavailable. 

“We are the ones who suffer due to stubble burning. We are the ones who inhale this air. We are helpless and left with no option but to burn. Government has failed to help us and look into our problems.”

-Bishamber Bittu reported on this story from Punjab.

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