Northern India Braces for Toxic Air Pollution Spikes as New Punjab Leaders Fail to Control Crop Stubble Fires
Aam Admi Party leaders Bhagwant Mann (centre), the Punjab chief minister, and Arvind Kejrwal (left), chief minister of Delhi.

NEW DELHI – When India’s Aam Admi Party (AAP) won elections in the northern state of Punjab in March, decisively wresting power away from the Indian National Congress (INC) and defeating the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, clean air advocates and activists were optimistic that the burning of crop stubble by Punjab farmers – the biggest contributor to Delhi’s recurring autumn and winter air pollution spikes – would finally be tackled and a real solution found.

There were two primary reasons for this optimism. First, of all Indian political parties, the AAP, which came into power in Delhi in 2013, was one of the earliest to acknowledge the health harm of air pollution and speak out most openly about the need to reduce this environmental toxin.

It even experimented with implementing an odd-even road-sharing plan for vehicles in the high pollution season in early 2016. Even though this scheme failed to deliver – some research showed pollution actually increased during this period – the AAP succeeded in raising awareness about air pollution and making it a mainstream issue.

But it was the second reason that gave activists cause for optimism this season. For years, the AAP has loudly, aggressively and publicly blamed the INC for the winter pollution peaks in Delhi and northern India, saying that the Congress-ruled Punjab government has been  unable to control fires set by farmers to prepare their fields for winter sowing. 

Satellite image of northern India on 26 October 2020 shows the Delhi region with “very poor” to “severe” air quality, largely as a result of of crop burning in Punjab, whose capital is Chandigarh.

Now that the AAP had taken control of Punjab with a sweeping majority, the party had all the power to stop farm fires – whose toxic drifts southward towards Delhi in early and mid-winter, setting off choking pollution crises in the city for more than a decade.

But the AAP’s proposal that the central government, the Punjab state government and the Delhi state government jointly pay farmers a cash incentive of Rs 2500 per acre – not to burn crop residue appears to have already fallen through. The party has been unable to explain why – although it’s likley attributable to the deep political rivalries that exist between the centre-left AAP, now controlling Punjab state and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls the government today.

Specific questions sent by Health Policy Watch to AAP leaders and spokespersons, including chairperson of the Delhi Assembly’s environment committee and legislative assembly member Atishi Marlena, were either ignored or given generic responses. 

One AAP spokesperson referred us back to a YouTube video of a speech made by the Punjab Chief Minister, Bhagwant Mann, in which Mann said that the state government has asked the central government for help in paying farmers the no-burn cash incentive. 

Punjab chief minister claims central government nixed farmer incentives

Mann said the proposal calls for the central government to cover Rs 1500 of the cost of the no-burn incenteive, while the Punjab and Delhi state governments would each add Rs 500 per acre – in light of the huge health impacts the stubble burning has downwind – including in New Delhi, India’s capital city, and the greater Delhi metropolitan area, India’s second largest.  

“The central government has rejected our proposal,” Mann said, speaking in the video in Punjabi. “But doesn’t matter, even if the central government doesn’t help us, we will go ahead with our contributions and also ask every one of our officers to spread awareness (about the harms from burning) and inform farmers that they should not light fires,” he added. 

However, subsequently, Punjab Agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said the plan to give cash incentives to farmers not to burn crop stubble had been shelved in its entirety. “How can we pay when the centre is not giving?” the minister asked.

Meanwhile, Mann said the Punjab government would also deploy 105,000 crop residue management machines in to grind the crop waste  – another much touted alternative to waste burning. But it remained unclear if the Punjab government intended to buy the machines or merely encourage farmers to buy them via subsidies – and what timelines were being planned. 

And he said that the government would also incentivize farmers to make wider use of an innovative new chemical composting technique, known as the Pusa decomposer, an indigenous catalyst that converts rice stalks to valuable manure, and has been successfully tested by the Delhi State government over the past two years in its own non-basmati rice-growing farmlands.  However, the stalks still take several weeks to decompose and it remains to be seen if farmers will perceive the value of the compost thus created as worth the wait. 

Early start of toxic air?

Pollution in Delhi peaks in late autumn when drifting emissions from crop burning exacerbate the usual urban household, traffic and industrial sources

With the harvest season beginning imminently, however, it is already getting late to take pre-emptive action – with some Punjabi farmers already beginning to set their fields on fire.

Like every monsoon season, August and September have seen the cleanest air, and the lowest Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers, in north India in 2022, with rains clearing smoke and fine particulates that are the most hazardous to health, and would otherwise drift hundreds of kilometers towards Delhi. 

On Friday 16 September, for instance, the AQI in Delhi was 44, putting it squarely in the “good” category (AQI under 50), due to a long period of light rain – the first “good” air day since 18 October 2021, which was the only good air day in 2021. 

There were only five good air days in 2020, mainly because of the lockdown. But there wasn’t a single good air day in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

This post-monsoon air is clean because it has been washed by rains – no political party or smog tower can claim credit for this although that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying. 

But as those who track air pollution know that this is the calm before the storm.  It is a narrow window of time after which, rice paddy straw burning during the dry season that follows begins to push PM2.5 readings up to dangerous levels – made even more hazardous by fireworks from the Hindu Diwali festival, to be celebrated this year on 24 October.  

PM2.5 is the microscopic particulate matter that bypasses human defences to settle deep into the lungs. It is absorbed by the bloodstream and carried to every organ in the human body, fueling inflammation and a host of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, among others.

Often these can spike more than 250 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) limit of five micrograms per cubic metre on the day after Diwali. 

With the monsoon receding early, leaving a rainfall deficit of 35% in Delhi according to the India Meteorological Department, wind speeds dropping and some early signs of crop stubble burning, toxic air may make an early entry this year. 

Farmers already burning fields

There is a very brief turn-around between the autumn rice harvest and the time when farmers need to sow wheat, making rice stalk burning attractive to farmers.

According to the Punjab Remote Sensing Center, farmers have already begun lighting their fields. Last Tuesday the AQI immediately rose to 182, the highest since 25 June, when it was 230. 

Farm fires usually begin in Punjab’s Majha region and progress towards the Malwa region. Unless there is some miracle, Delhi and north India’s Gangetic plain are in for another toxic winter, as governments flounder without focus or specific plans to reduce the burning of agricultural waste, 

North India’s unique geography, topography and meteorology make controlling stubble burning critical to curbing air pollution. The geography of the Indo-Gangetic plain – with the great Himalayan range in the north acting as a physical barrier, preventing dirty air from dissipating quickly – traps pollution generated in the region for long periods. 

As the monsoons recede and the air becomes cooler and drier over the winter months, wind speeds also reduce. Seasonal temperature inversions  – when lighter, warmer air rises and traps cooler, denser air – further confines pollution to the ground level, keeping atmospheric particulate concentration high. 

Air pollution in this region is bad year round – but during autumn and winter, these geographical and meteorological misfortunes combine with stubble-burning to create the perfect storm, turning India’s northern plains into one gigantic bowl of pollution that its residents are forced to breathe for months on end.

Health costs of stubble burning

Analysis of the proportions of a) people exposed and b) land area covered by air pollution at various levels, based on data extracted by Washington University, St. Louis USA.

Stubble-burning is one of the major contributors to air pollution in South Asia. But the problem is particularly acute in north India due to the unique mix of crop cultivation patterns, the timing of harvests, and weather. In India’s Punjab and neighboring states, farmers burn their fields to quickly clear them of straw in the short window of time that they have between the end of rice-harvesting and the wheat-sowing period. These fires are so large that they can be seen from space.

Until September, densely populated urban areas like Delhi experience mixed winds, including the moisture-laden easterlies and south-easterlies. But by early October, the winds change direction, blowing in from the northwest so if paddy fields are on fire at this time, smoke from the fires move directly towards the urban areas – and the 46 million people living in the greater Delhi region who inhale the smoke with every breath they take.  

According to some estimates, farmers reportedly produce almost 50 million tonnes of straw a year in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, burning about four-fifths of the waste. Punjab alone produces 20 million tonnes of paddy residue.

Another, more conservative estimate of the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center holds that farmers in North India burn around 23 million tonnes of straw from their rice harvests.  But this is still huge; if the stalks were packed into 38-cm-high bales, and piled on top of each other, they would reach the moon.  

The air pollution cost due to stubble burning is estimated at $30 billion annually in terms of health and economic disruptions such as flight and train delays and car crashes, according to National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

Rural as well as urban populations experience the negative health impacts. An October 2021 study on the respiratory effects of crop stubble burning in the Patiala district of Punjab, undertaken by the Energy Resources Institute, found respiratory complaints and reduced lung function across all age groups – with the most reduced lung function in the lowest age groups whose developing bodies may be stunted by pollution for life. 

Exposure to stubble burning increased a person’s risk of lung cancer by 36%, the study also found, with more adverse health effects among women as compared to men.  

Stubble burning also harms soil fertility, destroying many nutrients. One report estimated the losses as follows: nitrogen (5.5kg), phosphorous (2.3 kg), potassium (25 kg) and sulphur (1.2 kg). The heat also kills beneficial bacteria and fungi, according to the report.

Alternative uses for stubble

For nearly a decade, Indian agricultural experts and air quality advocates have tried to promote alternative crop management practices including not only the incorporation of rice stubble into the soil through mechanical tilling or composting, but also other creative uses for the thick rigid stalks as inputs to: pulp and paper production; biofuel; soil-enriching biochar, or for production of cement and bricks.

Ashwini Choubey, the national government’s Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, told the Parliament in July that Punjab aimed to bring its 20 million tonnes of stubble burning down to zero by 2024 by switching to other crops (reduction of 5.22 million tonnes), in-situ management with composting and mulching in the fields itself (10.70 million) and managing the remainder ex-situ (4.66 million tonnes).

However, a big part of this plan was the farmers’ subsidy to not burn crop waste, with the state governments of Delhi, Punjab and the central government sharing the cost of this subsidy in a 1:1:3 ratio. 

This came to nought with central government declining to share this cost, and later, the AAP itself deciding not to go ahead with this payout.

The subsidy was to be supplemented with a two-pronged system of support for crop waste management alternatives – including use of the Pusa decomposer and mechanical waste shredders. 

Shredding stubble and seeding simultaneously

In terms of mechanical methods, machines with names like the Happy Seeder and the Super Seeder have been marketed as devices that can be attached to conventional mechanized harvesters to shred crop residue while simultaneously seeding the winter wheat crop, eliminating the need for rice stalk burning.

But while the government has widely promoted their use in the last few years, uptake has still been limited.

A substantial increase in diesel fuel prices has proved to be an impediment for farmers’ uptake of the mechanical shredding technologies, as fuel-related costs account for 25% of the total operations costs.  

Farmers also remain wary about the Pusa decomposer – partly due to lack of awareness and partly because the benefits of the compost produced from the rice stalks is not yet perceived as  a benefit that outweighs the cost of the time lost in the process of waiting for the residues to rot – even at an accelerated pace. 

Rice paddies are too water-intensive.

Rice is the wrong crop- above and below ground

The more fundamental crux of the problem is that India is growing the wrong crop, experts say. Rice is water-intensive and  Punjab and Haryana, and to some extent UP and Rajasthan are short on water, including groundwater. But even so, in recent decades farmers have gradually switched over from the cultivation of traditional food crops like pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, rye and maize to rice, due to the government subsidies made available for the latter. The irony is that the legumes are healthy sources of nutrition, including iron, for local communities in a country harbors one quarter of the world’s cases of anaemia – while much of the rice is now exported.   

The air pollution impacts of the changing crop plantation patterns are evident in a mapping of smoke emitted from different farm regions during the autumn, a Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) study observes. It found higher emissions of PM2.5 from crop stubble burning in the rice paddy-intensive districts of Punjab’s Ludhiana and Sangrur, as compared to other parts of the state, such as Hoshiarpur and Pathankot, where more traditional plants and legumes remain popular.

Meanwhile, below ground, the rice cultivation had negative impacts on the stability of underground water aquifers, also vital for drinking water.  To remedy that, a Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009 ordered farmers to delay the start of the rice-planting season from April until June – ensuring that the first summer monsoon rains could adequately recharge groundwater reservoirs before rice cultivation began. This, however, delayed the rice harvest, and that had knock-on effects –  shrinking the window of time farmers had to clear their fields between the rice harvest and wheat planting season.

From that point in time, Delhi’s autumn air pollution emergencies became more and more acute, studies of trends over time show.  

More than two decades later, turning the clock back remains a formidable challenge for the new government of Punjab, critics say now. If the AAP is truly to commit itself to controlling pollution, it will have to take a more integrated approach. 

This means expanding the uptake of non-burn alternatives to crop stubble use, as well as striking at the roots of the problem – literally – by encouraging farmers to shift to more diverse crops, including early-maturing rice varieties such as those now being developed by the Punjab Agricultural University. That would allow farmers to plant and harvest their summer crops earlier, before monsoon rains stop and wind direction and speeds pick up.

But that also means changing the regime of price supports so that farmers can still make a profit if they switch from water-guzzling rice paddies to high-nutrient millet and maize.

Unfortunately, until those systemic issues are addressed, toxic air pollution is likely to darken Delhi’s skies once more this autumn and winter – at least for another year.

Image Credits: @pawanpgupta, Flickr, Zubair Hussain/ Unsplash,, Jagamohan Senapati/ Unsplash.

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