Water link to air crisis: 2009 Punjab law spark for stubble fires

Updated on Nov 09, 2022 10:56 AM IST

In north India’s food-bowl states, farmers set aflame paddy stalks around October to clear their fields for their next crop. This releases millions of tonnes of smoke, carbon dioxide stored in plant biomass, toxins and planet-warming gases in the atmosphere. Some environmentalists reckon this to be the deadliest spell of pollution in all of South Asia.

A farmer burns stubble in outskirts of Ludhiana. (HT Photos) PREMIUM
A farmer burns stubble in outskirts of Ludhiana. (HT Photos)
By, New Delhi

In north India’s food-bowl states, farmers set aflame paddy stalks around October to clear their fields for their next crop. This releases millions of tonnes of smoke, carbon dioxide stored in plant biomass, toxins and planet-warming gases in the atmosphere. Some environmentalists reckon this to be the deadliest spell of pollution in all of South Asia. The air becomes unbreathable, as dense smoke forms a trough barricaded by the Himalayas running from north to east, enveloping Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, parts of Bihar — but especially the national capital. Already in the current stubble-burning season, Delhi recorded a peak AQI (air quality index) of 459, Ghaziabad 416, and Greater Noida 425. A reading above 400 means the air is hazardous for all people and those with lung disease must be on alert for medical emergencies.

Delhi’s air is always bad (the annual average AQI ranges in the early 200s); November, December, and January are the worst months; but different causes lie behind the high AQIs in the three months. In November, it is stubble burning. Without it, Delhi’s AQI in these months will likely be in the mid- or high 200s, still not good, but relatively, a world better than what it is otherwise.

Behind the stubble burning is the decision to grow paddy, which can be traced back to the Green Revolution’s objective of making the country food secure. And behind it, is the overuse of water (paddy anyway is a water-hungry crop), which resulted in falling groundwater levels. Indeed, the issue became so worrisome that in 2009, Punjab passed a water preservation law that pushed the cropping cycle of paddy back by an entire month (from May to June) — which is directly responsible for why farmers in the state burn paddy stalk.

The beginning: the Green Revolution

Farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains mainly alternate between rice and wheat, known as monocropping, a result of the Green Revolution in the 1960s.

To end dependence on food aid, India began putting together a policy framework, led by then farm minister C Subramanium. A breakthrough came when the country got hold of a fertiliser-responding high-yielding spring wheat variety from CIMMYT, an international farm research organisation.

A similar variety of “Indica” rice came from the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. Nearly 18,000 tonne of these seeds were dispatched to food-bowl states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Along with minimum support prices, fertiliser subsidies and irrigation cover in these pockets, the Green Revolution took off. Within years, India became self-sufficient in foodgrain.

The rice-wheat system, especially paddy, however, slowly proved to be ecologically disastrous. A water-guzzling crop, paddy severely depleted Punjab and Haryana’s water table, as the rate of ground water extraction far exceeded that of replenishment.

“The Green Revolution was actually only a brown (rice and wheat) revolution. The technology was limited, the areas to which it was applied were limited, the crops were limited and the farmers who benefited were limited,” said Uma Kapila, an economic historian who taught at Delhi’s Miranda House college.

“Though it made India self-sufficient, it ruined Punjab’s ecology with overuse of chemicals and nearly finishing off its ground water.”

Water and fire: Punjab’s law

Authorities finally decided to act tough. To conserve groundwater, Punjab passed a law in 2009, the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, to ban rice planting before a set date announced by the government every season, so that paddy is grown only when the monsoon arrives, thereby reducing its dependence on groundwater.

This pushed back rice sowing from mid-May to mid-June. The move aimed at conserving water had unintended consequences. It shifted paddy harvesting to late October from September, leaving farmers with very little time to sow the next crop, wheat.

Setting paddy stalks on fire became the quickest and cheap way to clear fields, resulting in an intractable pollution crisis.

The Indo-Gangetic Plains account for 41% of the India’s annual food production, according to official data. About 9.6 million hectares of land are devoted annually for the rice-wheat cropping system.

According to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), nearly 14 million tonne of an estimated 22 million of the rice stubble, or 63.6%, is set on fire. Haryana and Punjab contribute about 50% to this. In the Punjab region, rice and wheat account for about 85.91% of the total crops.

Though the annual pollution crisis over north India has its roots in the water conservation law, also passed by Haryana in 2010, advanced mechanised farming also has to a big role to play.

Punjab’s agricultural prowess is powered by giant machines, called combine harvesters, used for harvesting the crops efficiently. These equipment ‘combine’ three different operations — reaping, threshing and winnowing. “Combine harvesters are efficient because they cut the grains, leaving paddy stalks behind,” Balwinder Singh Sandhu, agriculture commissioner of Punjab.

Farmers say the massive amount of stubble, which are essentially tall stalks about 15cm high, are difficult to get rid of in a short span of time. It is easier to burn the stubble after harvest to quickly clear fields for sowing winter wheat.

“Another rationale behind the burning of the stubble is the shortage of time between the harvest and the sowing of the next crop,” said Muhammad Isa Abdurrahman of the School of Engineering and Technology, Sharda University, the lead author of the study cited above.

According to Abdurrahman’s study, the “average time interval between the harvest of rice and sowing of wheat was reported to be 15 days, and that of rice sowing after wheat harvest was relatively higher, up to about 46-48 days”. The farmers, therefore, do not have “sufficient time to appropriately manage the crop stubble especially after rice harvest”.

The option: moving away from paddy?

“Before the pollution reaches Delhi or Lucknow, it kills us,” says Maninder Singh Uppal, a paddy farmer in Punjab’s Sangrur, the current chief minister’s home town and the epicentre of farm fires as well as the farmers movement that forced the Union government to roll back three farm laws in 2021. “But what can we do? We don’t have an option.”

Data compiled by the Commission for Air Quality Management in the national capital region and adjoining areas till November 1 shows that out of the 15,461 cases recorded in the north Indian states and Madhya Pradesh, so far this season, Punjab logged 12,112 (nearly 80%) cases. This was followed by Haryana with 1,813 cases, Uttar Pradesh 705, Madhya Pradesh 599, Rajasthan 227 and Delhi five.

Union farm minister Narendra Singh Tomar said on November 4 that the Centre had so far released 3,000 crore to Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi under its scheme to prevent paddy-residue burning. A third of the allocated amount has yet to be utilized, Tomar said, urging collective efforts to mitigate a pollution crisis in northern India.

The subsidies are meant to make stubble management equipment cheaper for farmers, such as the happy seeder and balers, which neatly make compressed rectangular lumps of paddy stubble.

Most farmers have demanded an incentive for every acre of paddy land, besides subsidising machinery to deal with stubble. They say this has ensured a considerable fall in stubble-burning incidents in Haryana.

“The area under paddy is 1.4 million hectare in Haryana, while Punjab has 3.1 million hectares under paddy. Haryana offers 1,000 per acre for on-field management of stubble. That’s why Punjab has higher incidence of crop burning,” says Ramandeep Singh Mann, an independent farm expert.

The cost of disposing of stubble in an ecologically friendly way is about 2,000 an acre, he said.

But a rice-wheat cropping system will continue to be an ecologically unsustainable for Punjab, experts say. The only workable solution is to encourage farmers to shift away from this monocropping pattern, says Kapila.

Punjab takes about 5,500 litres of water to grow 1kg of rice, five times as much China uses, pointing to the state’s low water productivity. Northern and central districts are severely water depleted, while south-western districts face water logging and soil salinity or alkalinity.

The government’s procurement policy, which allows farmers to sell only cereals at minimum support prices (MSP) in sufficient quantities for state-run granaries, incentivises big cereals. It has caused Punjab’s rich landscape of corn, barley, gram, lentils and nutritious coarser cereals to disappear within a decade of big cereals entering the state in the late 1960s.

MSP or minimum support price is a floor price set by the government. The government procures or buys paddy and wheat at MSP to build stockpiles for redistribution to the poor. This has increased farmers’ dependence on cereals.

“Crop diversification is urgent but this will happen only when the government resorts to procurement of crop other than cereals,” says Sandhu, the agriculture commissioner.

The state has never been able to implement an agenda of crop diversification first chalked out by the so-called SS Johl committee in 1986, said KS Mani, a former faculty at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

The fruits of the Green Revolution are fading fast. Farm incomes in Punjab are growing at a much slower pace than some traditionally poorer states, as new data suggest agriculture in the state has hit an immutable law of economics: diminishing returns.

A slower pace of farm income growth in Punjab is borne out by the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households 2018-19 (SAS), a national survey of farm incomes released recently.

Although Punjab’s farmers lead the country in terms of absolute levels of monthly income, farm income not adjusted for inflation in the state annually grew 6.73% in a span of six years between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the survey shows.

In contrast, farm incomes in states such as Bihar and Uttarakhand grew much faster at 13.3% and 19.3% in the corresponding period, albeit over a low base.

Cheap fertilisers, assured minimum support price (MSP) for cereals, free electricity for drawing water and high-yielding seeds have, over the decades, spurred a trend of mono-cropping, or the practice of growing mainly rice in summer and wheat in winter. This has robbed Punjab’s farmers of potential income that could have come from growing a more diverse set of sustainable crops, research shows.

Running dry: an ineffective law

The law hasn’t helped Punjab’s water situation. The water table in Punjab’s central and southern districts, such as Hoshiarpur, Bathinda, Barnala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala and Sangrur, is falling at an alarming rate of approximately 0.5 metre per year, according to Balbir Singh Seechewal, a member of a panel set up by the National Green Tribunal to monitor groundwater.

The focus on paddy has meant a groundwater extraction rate of 165%, a jump of 16 percentage points since 2013. “I have moved from shallow tubewells to six deep tubewells on my 12 acres. My expenses are going up because I have to dig deeper and deeper every year,” says Ravinder Singh, a paddy grower in Barnala and a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan).

In 2019, a Central Ground Water Board report concluded that at the present rate of groundwater extraction, Punjab’s groundwater will vanish in two decades.

Fuel to the fire: the weather factor

It doesn’t help that the farm fires in Punjab coincide with the onset of winter in the northern plains — colder nights (and days); still winds; and a change in wind direction (it starts blowing from the north and northwest, depositing smoke from the fires in Punjab all across Haryana, Delhi and the NCR).

A natural weather pattern, marked by slowing wind speed, ensures the smog stays still for days — a meteorological condition known as inversion, in which a layer of warm air sits on top of cooler air, trapping it. It’s called inversion because normally cool air tends to exist above warm air. The warm layer tends to lock in the smog.

Most northern cities, especially the national capital, experience a pollution crisis lasting weeks.

Nearly 30 million people are affected by the yearly haze, according to one estimate.

The heat from stubble burning kills soil microbes crucial to maintaining soil fertility. Millions of tonnes of noxious gases stored in biomass at once drift up. They are a significant source of gaseous pollutants, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx) and methane (CH4), according to studies.

The haze also contains up to 300 times the tolerable levels of particulate matters (PM10 and PM 2.5), causing serious damage to lungs and the environment.

Each year, about 352 million tonne of stubble is generated, out of which 22% and 34% are contributed by wheat and rice stubble-burning respectively, according to the 2020 paper, “Stubble burning: Effects on health & environment, regulations and management practices, Environmental Advances” published in the journal Nature.

About 84 million tonne (23.86%) of the stubble is burnt in-situ (on-field) each year immediately after harvest in Punjab.

And its cause can be traced back to a 2009 law.

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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