Smog and Stubble Burning: Farmers as Scapegoats


“SMOG over Delhi and North India as farmers’ burn stubble” scream headlines across media outlets. It is an easy narrative to peddle to city dwellers, but an entirely misplaced one. There are two big reasons why this is so. First, smog over Delhi and other parts of the Gangetic plains in the winter months results from many contributory factors, and increase in smog-forming particulates and noxious gases from burning of post-harvest stubble in Punjab and Haryana is only one of them, and a small and transient one at that. Second, while farmers do indeed burn stubble the left after harvesting mainly wheat and paddy using combines, this is not out of any disregard for welfare of others but chiefly due to cost and technology constraints, and a total failure of both central and state governments to step forward and take on the responsibility to tackle the problems faced by farmers and downwind urban residents.

Air pollution over Delhi and the northern plains varies considerably between summer and winter months, due both to different seasonal weather conditions and to varying proportions of different pollutants. In summer, rising warmer air lifts pollutants to higher altitudes and winds disperse them horizontally. Less biomass is burnt in summer especially for heating. In winters, pollutants stay nearer ground level because of the cooler air and the inversion effect of a layer of warmer layer settling on the cooler air below and preventing it from rising or dispersing vertically. More biomass is burnt, notably for heating, and of course the well-known problem of in-situ burning of crop residues is a winter phenomenon. Chemical reactions involving air and ambient vehicular exhausts or industrial air pollutants also vary with seasonal temperatures. Invariably therefore, smog is worse during winters than in summer, and prompts the now familiar headlines.

If we ignore seasonal variations and weather conditions, most of the air pollution in Delhi and north India in general is contributed by vehicles especially diesel-powered ones, construction and road dust, industries, and coal and wood-burning in brick kilns, homes and eateries. Within this broad scenario, stubble burning takes place for about 3 weeks in October-November, and may contribute only around 12 percent of pollutants on average and up to 60 percent over localized areas and over very short periods. Sure, the problem gets acute during this short period since pollutants such as particulates, especially the deadly PM 2.5, reach high peak values. But it is important to underscore that this pollution only, and temporarily, adds on to an already very high threshold of air pollution. So if one wants to point a finger at major sources of pollution, farmers are and should be the least of our worries. Instead, we should be really concerned about vehicles, construction and road dust, and industries including brick kilns.   

In any case, crop stubble burning is a highly visible phenomenon, it draws attention. For the past few years since 2013, even NASA has been tracking the problem. Photographs from space have captured clusters of stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, and plumes of pollutants stretching over the Gangetic plains which even obscure aerial images of the ground.

This year, NASA images seem to show substantially lower number of stubble burning locations compared to the same dates last year. This has led officials especially from the central government to proclaim substantial success, claiming 28 percent reduction of stubble burning in Punjab and 44 percent reduction in Haryana, which produce 22 million tons and 6.5 million tons of paddy stubble respectively per year. The central government had announced a target of 70 percent reduction for 2018 over last year.

However, many experts and farmers’ unions are sceptical about these claims. For one, with monsoon rains extending a few weeks beyond their normal period, farmers have had to delay harvesting, and therefore a date-to-date comparison between last year and this year may not give a clear picture. Evidence from the ground suggests that it is likely that harvesting, and hence stubble burning, may pick up vigour a few weeks from now.

Other evidence too suggests that the claims of success may be premature and over-optimistic, perhaps fuelled by wishful thinking in relation to targets.

Problem is that stubble burning appears to be an issue that can be tackled without too much difficulty since it seemingly has less complex cross-cutting linkages with other policies and issues. But this is only apparently so, especially from the farmers’ point of view.

Already burdened by high input costs and less remunerative prices, farmers can ill afford to incur further expenditure on clearing the stubble. It is estimated that this may cost around Rs 10,000 per acre if done manually, with already scarce farm labour. Several technical “solutions” have been offered in the form of equipment and machinery for use by farmers to either pull out the stubble or plough it back into the soil. Agricultural universities in Punjab have produced several such machines such as rotovators, “happy seeder” etc.  But these are too expensive to be purchased by individual farmers, especially farmers with small holdings, and that too for use over only a couple of weeks in a year. 

The National Green Tribunal(NGT) had intervened strongly last year and directed the concerned State and Union governments to play a more pro-active role, including through requisite subsidies and other financial assistance for farm equipment and other measures to help farmers. NGT even ordered that simple farm equipment be distributed free to farmers with less than 2 acres of land. The central government has provided Rs 695 crores assistance to Punjab and Rs 137 crores to Haryana to help with such subsidies, with the states offering 50 percent subsidy to individual farmers and 80 percent subsidy to farm cooperatives. But it does not appear that these measures have brought about the desired results.

The subsidies themselves have triggered a rise in prices of such equipment. It has been reported, for instance, that rotovators that were priced at Rs 80,000 last year are selling at Rs 1,30,000 this year! Farmers continue to view with scepticism such an investment for just a few weeks of use. They also still find the costs prohibitive, not only as regards acquisition but also in terms of operational expenses, with costs in the range of Rs.5,000 to Rs.6,000 per acre.

Providing the machines to co-operatives has also been tried but apparently without too much success, maybe because of high demand from too many farmers in too small a period.

It has been suggested that a direct subsidy to the farmer of either Rs 200 or so per quintal added to the procurement price of paddy, or an outright cash payment of Rs 5,000 per acre to cover all costs, may incentivize farmers to tackle the problem at farm level itself.

It is worth a try. It is also worth thinking of other institutional approaches rather than only thinking of the individual farmer.

If the stubble could be ploughed back into the soil by the farmer, that would have been simple, but does not appear feasible due to high costs as noted above. Projections of trade-offs against reduction in fertilizer use and better returns have been disputed by farmers’ unions.

Extraction of the stubble for subsequent sale by the farmer and conversion by industries into briquettes for industry or power generation, paper or board manufacture etc appear to be feasible. Punjab has offered a very good tariff for biomass-based power, but till date less than 5 percent of crop residue is used for this. Clearly what is lacking is a well-established and viable supply chain from farm to industry with sufficient end-to-end incentives for all players, from those who will collect and bale the biomass from individual farms to stockists and the end-use industries.

But can this be left to market forces to gradually work out? Judging by initiatives taken so far by private players, probably not.

The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) --- or should we call them polluters incorporated? --- came together last year promising to take on this monumental tasks as a way of ‘giving back’ to society. Results from two pilot districts are awaited this year. Can we expect much?

Unfortunately, the agricultural extension machinery that performed so well during the Green Revolution has completely collapsed. It could have played the necessary crucial link role in tackling this problem today. The central government and concerned state governments could do well to consider setting up a contemporary equivalent of this for the stubble problem. Such an institutional mechanism could work with district-level cooperative bodies and other local institutions to link up with farmers and, crucially, meet the necessary costs while subsequently recovering it from the end-user industries for crop residues supplied, while providing viability gap funding if required. The farmer cannot be targeted to solve the problem or be penalized, and the private sector is proving to be the laggard it has always been. The state needs to play, must play, an important role if this problem is to be tackled.

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