Avoiding An ‘Airpocalypse’ – Delhi Declares War on Air Pollution
Punjab, India – Crop burning reduces crop yield and worsens air pollution.

With fires from crop stubble burning spreading across northern India heralding the beginning of Delhi’s winter air pollution season, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has pledged to take pre-emptive action – announcing a ‘war on pollution,’ led from a ‘war room’ that he will personally command. His arsenal includes a seven-point action plan that will include:  tracking the city’s hotspots; launching a ‘green Delhi’ mobile app to address open air burning complaints; and repairing the city’s potholed roads to control dust.  But his most powerful weapon for now could be a cheap and simple rapid compost brew, Pusa Decomposer that he hopes will inspire farmers in surrounding rural states to turn their crop waste into valuable fertilizer rather than burning it.

If Kerjiwal’s initiative succeeds, that could mark a turning point in decades of inaction contributing to northern India’s bleak air pollution situation – as well as climate change.

If not, Delhi and neighboring areas are headed for what Indians are now calling an ‘Airpocalypse’, or toxic pollutant-laced air that is poised to exacerbate COVID-19 respiratory disease in a country that has the second highest coronavirus case toll in the world.

In particular, cases are surging in the very regions facing potential air pollution emergencies. While Punjab is about to cross one 100,000 positive cases, Haryana has reported 118,000 cases so far. Delhi, one of the worst affected states of the country, has 260,000 infections so far. And the evidence that air pollution puts people at an increased risk of COVID-19 is strong.

But the war on air pollution has only been declared. And time for Delhi is quickly running out, as the seasonal crop burning in neighbouring rural regions of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which fuel Delhi’s air pollution, has aleady begun, while the city’s Air Quality Index already crossed the 200 mark yesterday after months of double digit levels. 

In addition, it’s so far unclear how much backing Kerjriwal will receive for his war from Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a political rival who has remained largely indifferent to the criticism heaped upon him nationally and globally over his failure to take action on practical matters like stubble burning – as well as the bigger picture of expanded dirty coal power production. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is already grappling with farmers already agitating against the passage of three agriculture bills in Parliament last month.

New Delhi, India – Toxic smog blocks out the sun.

Crop waste fires contribute to nearly half of Delhi’s Pollution in Peak Season

Due to an unfortunate convergence of weather and geography, the impact of rural crop burning on Delhi and other parts of northern India’s plains is huge. Particularly in the autumn months, preveailing winds bring the smoke emitted by crop burning into the city. Low wind speeds, dry weather, and temperature inversions combine to keep pollutants trapped in and around the metropolis and the wider region. The Himalayas form an additional barrier to the north, preventing toxic pollutants from dissipating. Past year’s have seen record air pollution events, with levels reaching hundred of times higher than the WHO’s recommended limits, and urban average are among the highest in the world. 

Altogether, it is estimated that crop burning in the States of Punjab and Haryana last winter accounted for up to 44% of Delhi’s air pollution during peak burning periods in autumn 2019, Central Pollution Control Board Member Secretary Prashant Gargava stated.  The burning of crop stubble by farmers in Punjab and Haryana cause fires so large that they can be seen from outer space.

This year, again, Nasa satellite data tracking PM2.5, the most health-harmful particulate pollutants, has already begun showing small spikes caused by farm fires, although the worst is yet to come. Fires usually peak to around 4,000 per day by late October and smoke from these add to the existing urban pollution load of vehicles, construction, road dust and other sources. So any measures to deal with crop stubble, if successful, would be significant.

True colour image and aerosol optical thickness (AOT) showing smoke depth from open agricultural burning in India in fall 2016 spreading across the northern plains, NPP VIIRS satellite data, NOAA View

At the same time, to really turn the corner on air pollution year round, the Delhi leader also needs to update plans on existing solutions like increasing electric buses for public transport; enacing stricter waste management measures; stricter enforcement and penalties for emissions from coal power plants; and better controls on upcoming government construction projects that could have a large pollution footprint. 

On the plus side, critics see it as a good sign that the Delhi Chief Minister’s initiative addresses multiple sources of pollution – instead of only focusing on the politically-charged crop residue burning by farmers from neighboring states. He has, in fact, reiterated his commitment to strengthen the newly-announced electric vehicle policy and denounced coal power plants that aren’t meeting their emission norms, while also announcing a renewed focus on transplanting mature trees rather than saplings to replace those sacrificed to new construction.

Serious implementation of a mix of these initiatives, including the composting technology, will be key to any significant reduction in air pollution, especially as the economy gears up to recover from the Covid-induced lockdown.

India had the world’s highest outdoor air pollution rate in 2017

Composting crop waste to save Delhi’s air 

In the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, farmers produce almost 50 million tons of straw a year, four fifths of which are burnt, concluded a joint industry-government report in Bloomberg. CIMMYT’s more conservative estimates say farmers in northern India burn an estimated 23 million tons of straw from their rice harvests. That enormous mass of straw, if packed into 20-kilogram 38-centimeter-high bales and piled on top of each other, would reach a height of over 430,000 kilometers — about 1.1 times the distance to the moon.

Burning of crop residue not only releases toxic gases into the air, it also burns precious nutrients away from soil, reduces crop yields, and promotes excessive use of fertilizers, according to the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center. Use of fertilizers is not only more expensive for governments, which provides massive fertilizer subsidies, it also increases costs for farmers.

In mid-September, a task force led by PK Mishra, principal secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to brainstorm how farmers can limit stubble burning and reduce pollution.

Of all the measures that are being discussed, the Pusa Decomposer seems to be the most promising.  The technology includes four ‘bio-decomposer’ capsules that can be dissolved into a liquid formulation, sprayed on shredded paddy straw, turning it into manure, said Dr YV Singh, principal scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. 

“The four capsules in a pouch can be used to make 25 litre solution which can then be used on one hectare or 2.5 acres of field,” he told India Today last week. “This capsule will help in curbing the practice of crop burning. This can be used in all forms and on any farm.”

Whereas rice paddy straw from the summer’s harvest normally takes 45 days to compose even if it is shredded, the Pusa Decomposer speeds up the process to  25 days, according to Singh. Shortening the process would give farmers time needed to prepare fields for their winter wheat crop – without harming having to burn their fields.  

Delhi officials are now trying to promote the idea amore widely: ‘This will end stubble burning and pollution to a huge extent,” said Delhi State’s Environment minister Gopal Rai. “We are planning to provide all sorts of help to farmers so that Delhi is safe from stubble burning,” he added. 

Growing the wrong crop at wrong time in wrong state

Wheat field in Punjab, Pakistan – sown after the rice harvest is finished.

Crop-stubble burning isn’t new. But it has become much more common in the past decade, after a government order in 2009 compelled farmers to begin sowing their rice seeds in June at the beginning of the monsoon season, rather than in April, when the weather is still hot and dry. The new policy was intended to ensure that the first monsoon rains recharge groundwater reservoirs before the rice planting began, but it backfired.

As a result of delaying the time of the harvest to early autumn, farmers have struggled to clear their fields in time for the next planting season, leaving them no other choice but to burn their fields – the quickest option they had.

Winds also change direction by October, so if paddy fields are on fire due to the later harvest, toxic smoke from the north blows directly towards urban areas with dense populations such as Delhi, as well as satellite towns known as the National Capital Region –  choking roughly 46 million residents in the area.

More fundamentally, rice is one of the most water-hungry crops in the world, and Punjab isn’t the ideal location to grow rice at all, as its groundwater levels are chronically low; rice also requires standing water in its early stages of growth.  Traditionally the area grew wheat and other nutrient-rich legumes and grains, which were more in tune with local conditions – and also healthier diets. 

However, over the past few decades, government rice subsidies encouraged farmers to grow so much rice that India has now become one of its largest exporters, at 12 million tonnes a year. Even the government’s own stocks are now more than twice the required level. By growing so much rice, environmentalists, the country is effectively exporting its most precious resource – water – out of the country. Some have theorized that Punjab’s shifts in crop sowing and production patterns have also been encouraged by the government and industry promotion of genetically modified Bt rice seeds.  The agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto has been promoting the seeds, which include genetic material from the Bacillus thuringiensis to ward off pests across Asia, although so far China has resisted, India was more accomodating

Monsanto seeds are less nutritious than traditional varieties, and result in high levels of silica in soil

An analysis by the NGO Ecologise Network explains that the government subsidies, along with the industry promotion of GM seed varieties has, over time, undercut production of  more nutritious, traditional varieties of legumes, grains and seeds. These were not only less water-hungry but also easier to manage after harvests because they did not require widespread burning. Some of the new varieties of rice also leave high silica levels in paddy stalks, making them unusable for use as animal fodder.   

The network also charges that other Monsanto GMO maize and wheat products are contributing to the destruction of bee colonies that pollinate 90% of the world’s food supply, including plants vital to Indian food production, also replacing human food stocks with ones destined for animals.  

“Monsanto’s GMO maize is also not fit for human consumption and is primarily used as chicken feed. Likewise, most of Monsanto’s wheat is used to feed animals because it is unfit for human consumption,” charges the NGO.  

Getting more with less: the power of ancient grains  

Merely by shifting its subsidy policies and food support, the government could easily persuade farmers – and consumers – to switch back to traditional Indian coarse grains that are more nutritious, use less water, and don’t need to be burned at  the end of the season, critics say. These include pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, rye and maize – all of which are traditionally grown in India. These grains have a high iron content and are perfect for a country that harbors one quarter of the world’s cases of anaemia. 

These traditional crops would also give farmers a longer window of time to clear their fields so they don’t have to slash and burn so hurriedly. Furthermore, with India’s ethanol policy 2018, any ethanol produced as a by-product can help farmers augment their income. For the country as a whole, investing in ethanol would also help create new employment opportunities and to save on oil imports.  

Until recently, the government’s main alternative to crop burning involved the promotion of tractors such as the ”Happy Seeder”, that mechanically cut stubble and sow seeds, and which have become popular in Punjab. However, critics say that the diesel-run machines are not only polluting but expensive to operate.  And they have not gained widespread acceptance either. Farmers in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, have instead opted for more traditional farming techniques, as well as seed varieties that produce less stubble and silica than their counterparts in Punjab.

India could halt subsidies for the Happy Seeder – a dirty diesel-run machine to cut stubble and sow seeds

Improving Appetite For Stubble – IKEA Leads Way

At the same time, whether or not stalk waste is  processed by big tractors or more traditional methods, farmers will stop burning crop stubble if they can cut it and sell it. So solutions that reuse farm waste, and preferably monetize it, also  incentivize farmers not to burn it. Some advocates have proposed that the government directly pay farmers to deposit crop waste at collection centres or link it to their support price payments. 

Still other solutions would involve subsidies to entrepreneurs that create solutions to tackle crop stubble burning, such as green refrigeration systems powered by farm waste or ecologically-based crockery or textiles, which also reduces plastic use.

The Swedish home furnishings company IKEA, for instance, recently launched its Forandring collection of home accessories like baskets and mats, textiles,  made  in collaboration with local industries, and which are using rice stubble pulp.  The collection is part of IKEA’s  Better Air Now initiative which is collaborating with the UN Environment Programme’s  Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

“No-till” farming can improve soil quality and crop yields

There is yet another way to reduce the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from crop burning by almost 80%  – and it can also maximize profits for farmers, according to a 2019 study published in Science.

No-till practices that leave straw on top of the soil as mulch can preserve soil moisture and improve soil quality and crop yields in the long-run, said Principal Scientist of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center M.L Jat, who co-authored the Science study.

Image Credits: Neil Palmer, Sumitmpsd , Our World In Data, AishaSaleemkhan100, Karen Eliott, Science Direct, Maggilautaro .

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