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How is Stubble Burning Impacting the Environment and the Economy

Oct 29, 2020 12:57 PM 4 min read

Recently, US President Donald Trump's remark on India’s "filthy air" caused quite a storm in the media. While his political rhetoric was never known to be subtle, residents of Delhi can fail to acknowledge its veracity only up to a certain level.

Delhi's degrading air quality has been a cause of concern for some time now, more so during the winter months when the Air Quality Index (AQI) particularly skyrockets. And the often cited contributory force behind this i.e. Stubble burning, is nothing but political dynamite! 

What is Stubble Burning?

Farming in India is still antiquated. Stubble or stem is the crop residue that is left in the fields after the crop is harvested. Unlike processed residues like husks, molasses, seeds etc. Which serve as animal fodder or soil-enrichment products, stubble is difficult to assemble (because they are strewn across the length of the fields during harvesting) and difficult to re-cultivate (since they act as soil granules inhibiting plant growth). 

So, the farmers' easiest solution to dispose of them is through combustion. Although that may reduce costs and helps clear the fields quickly, the after-effects range from reducing soil fertility to creating massive fires and release of noxious smoke. 


How is It Responsible for Air Pollution in the NCR?

A combination of geographical position and retreating wind direction during winter worsens the situation by pushing the combustion winds from the agricultural belt of Punjab and Haryana into the heavily populated NCR territory. 

As per Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) data, approximately 14 million tons (MT) out of the 22 MT of the rice stubble (about 63.6%) generated each year in India is set to fire. Data from the Ministry of Earth Sciences said that stubble-burning alone contributed 16% to the worsening air quality.

The impact is aggravated in the months of October-January over the past decade because of two reasons:

  • A 2009 Act prevents farmers from planting paddy before June 15th of every year, thereby postponing the harvesting season to the end of the year.
  • Formation of the "thermal inversion layer" about 100 feet above the ground which traps pollutants and prevents their escape into the higher atmosphere.


Why Are the States Awry?

The 2009 Act was officially enacted (first in Punjab followed by Haryana) to prevent rapidly-declining water-tables due to agricultural overuse before the Monsoon season. However, many view this as a policy redirection augmented by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote "water-retentive" variants of maize (produced by companies like Monsanto) in place of rice. 

Agriculture is India is an allied business. Besides, the states and farmers are in agreement about the twin benefits of cost reduction (employing "Seeder Machines" to cull the stubble off of fields costs over ₹1L ($1,356) a piece) and timely removal of the stubble before the next sowing season commences. 

What's ironic is that even after the Government announced a 50% subsidy on seeders, the cost escalated to as much as ₹1.55L ($2,102) apiece. What does this mean? Perhaps, foul-play and market manipulation by certain parties in an effort to countermand sustainable measures at progress. 

Meanwhile, the state of Delhi remains in conflict with its neighbours for their consequences "unintended" and yet not "mitigated". 


Legal Apparatus (In Place and Proposed)

The National Policy for Management of Crop Residues was issued in 2014 to monitor the issue, but was never thoroughly implemented. 

In November 2019, the Supreme Court directed the states of Punjab, Haryana and UP to assist small and marginal farmers financially (by up to ₹100 per quintal) to dispose of crop residue via means other than burning stubble. In October 2020, the Court appointed the Justice Lokur Committee to monitor/prevent stubble burning. However, that appointment has been put on hold now after the Central Government announced an intention to bring permanent legislation on regulation of stubble-burning activities soon.

There are state-wise bans already in place which are incidentally unenforced on a large scale. Although it is unclear what the proposed legislation will look like, there is currently no dearth of legal deterrence mechanisms to prevent stubble-burning (Section 188 of the IPC actually imposes criminal liability on anyone defying the ban, just like any other prohibition!).


The Economics of Stubble-Burning

Although the Economic Survey 2019-20 reported a declining trend of stubble-burning incidents in North India (lowest in four years), serious concerns of air-pollution and resulting decline in productivity still loom large. 

A study by the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute assessed an estimated economic loss of over $30bn in India annually on account of crop residue burning. This is exclusive of the adverse impact to human health, which is a dangerous bargain for a farmer who admittedly opts to spend ₹2 by lighting the stubble on fire than spend ₹8,000 ($108) to dispose of the same in a scientific and sustainable manner.


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