Act now to avert the imminent air pollution crisis. There is a way out
Every year, when the rice crop is harvested in north India before Diwali and the crop residue is burnt in the fields, air pollution rises well above danger levels. There is a health crisis due to its impact on the respiratory system. This year, the impact on health of those who have recovered from Covid-19, whose numbers are quite large, can be far worse. Surely, we need to act decisively to avoid a repeat of this annual health crisis.
Business-as-usual would not do. Measures that have not made a material difference till now are unlikely to suddenly deliver desired outcomes. Ploughing in the residue into the fields may be good environmentally and improve the quality of the soil. But notwithstanding large subsidies for the equipment, this practice is yet to gain momentum needed to solve the problem in the next few years. The farmer sees the extra cost and does not see it as being worthwhile.
At the other end, a strong law was put in place providing for stringent fines and prison sentences for burning crops in the field. This law is unimplementable as it would not be feasible for state governments to use the police against farmers on such a large scale. As it is, farmers have been protesting for over a year against the new farm laws. It may be recalled that concession on the pollution-related law was readily offered by the central government in its talks with agitating farmers.
Putting up expensive air purifying towers at highly polluted points in Delhi may give a sense of satisfaction of doing something, but it makes no real difference. The same is the case with odd-even driving mandates as has been seen in the past.
Something radically different needs to be tried out. The farmer burns the crop in the field as it is the cheapest way of clearing the field. He is not willing to incur any extra cost. As it is, he has a grievance that his income is not rising adequately. The simplest solution would be to buy the crop waste at a price that gives the farmer a small margin over the cost of removing the crop waste, and carrying it to the designated sale points which could be in the mandis. Using the market mechanism of a remunerative price, the entire crop waste can be procured this year itself. There will be no crop burning, and no sharp spike in air pollution.
The cost of buying all the crop waste will be high. But, conceptually, this can be seen as part of the minimum support price (MSP) for procurement of rice itself. This cost would be well worth it given the health benefits at stake.
The crop waste can also be converted into briquettes/pellets, which can be used in existing coal fired thermal power plants as a substitute for coal. Substitution to the extent of 10% will not present any technical difficulties. The conversion of crop waste into briquettes can be outsourced to private parties, which will invest in processing plants on their own if they get the contracts for, say, three to four years. The briquettes can be sent to nearby thermal plants. The cost of briquettes will be comparable to that of coal. Even if it is marginally higher, the impact on the cost of electricity would be nominal. The cost of coal is a passthrough and so this would be revenue-neutral for the power plants.
The whole process can be revenue-neutral and may not need any subsidy or actual outflow of government money. But it will need the State to assume responsibility for the whole process by settling a remunerative price for crop waste, and providing financing for procurement, logistics of procurement and storage, contracting for conversion into briquettes, land on nominal rentals for putting up the briquette making plants to private parties, and policy directions to power plants and regulators.
This is a huge task. But it is well within existing State capacity. It is doable. Not attempting it would be irresponsible. The time to take decisions and begin the process of implementation is right now.
Ajay Shankar is distinguished fellow, TERI and a former secretary in the Government of India
The views expressed are personal