Policy Engagements and Blogs

Crop Burning as a source of Air Pollution in National Capital Region

Navroz K Dubash

May 4, 2018


On 23 February 2018, the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment (ICEE) at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) organized a panel discussion on ‘Crop Burning as a source of Air Pollution in NCR’ as part of the ongoing Clearing the Air? Seminar Series on Delhi’s Air Pollution. The panel was moderated by Harish Damodaran, Rural Affairs and Agriculture Editor, The Indian Express, and the panelists were Dr ML Jat, Senior Cropping Systems Agronomist and CIMMYT-CCAFS South Asia Coordinator, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); Pritam Singh, farmer from village Urlana Khurd, Panipat, Haryana; and Dr Rajbir Yadav, Principal Scientist, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).

The panel explored the genesis of the problem of crop residue burning, why it has become a particularly thorny issue in the last few years, and what are the possible technological interventions available? It also discussed some of the key political, scientific, economic and social drivers that need to be considered while designing a long-term solution to the problem of crop burning.

We have identified some important points that came up during the panel discussion and presented them in the form of a Q&A below. The video of the panel discussion, and further details about the speakers, are available here.

Why has crop residue burning become particularly salient – environmentally and politically – in the last few years? Why is this problem witnessed particularly in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh, and not in other parts of the country?

Harish Damodaran: Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Uttarakhand have nearly 4 million hectares of rice and wheat cropping area. This area produces 34 million tons of rice stubble in a year and 23 million tons of residue is burnt. After the paddy is harvested starting mid-October, wheat has to be sown latest by mid-November. This is because in order to obtain maximum yield from the wheat crop, it has to be sown by mid-November to attain required growing period of 140- 150 days before it is ready for harvest in mid – April. The paddy stubble also has little economic value as animal feed. Therefore the most viable option available to farmers to prepare the field for wheat crop in such a short window period (15-20 days) is to burn the standing stubble. This short timespan in which the stubble is burnt coincides with the Diwali season in the country, adding to the winter time pollution woes experienced in the capital.

It a complicated problem but the solution has to come from within the agricultural community. As the farmer is the main stakeholder, for any policy design to succeed, he has to be part of the solution.

Dr ML Jat: Crop residue burning is a global problem. It is burnt in all parts of the country where combine harvesters are used and there are no incentives for the retrieval of residue from the field. It is done even in Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and the southern states. It is witnessed in other parts of Asia as well. There is a strong correlation between the use of combine harvesters specially for rice harvesting and burning activity as the rice stubble produced from combines is of little economic value to the farmer. The use of combine harvesters without considering the fate of the residue after taking out the grain is a case of ‘half innovation’ where a technology is introduced without holistically evaluating the benefits as well as the negative effects, which often prove detrimental in the long run.

Rice-wheat cropping system, wherever it prevails, leads to stubble burning, especially in areas where rice is harvested using combines. In southern India, burning is not as prevalent. Farmers there follow a rice-rice cropping system, and farmers resort to puddling (which is tillage of paddy field in the flooded soil conditions). However, in coastal parts of Andhra Pradesh and parts of Tamil Nadu, water scarcity is leading to a shift from rice toward maize cultivation, which in turn, is resulting in stubble burning.

Are there concerns regarding the available technological interventions to reduce crop burning?

Pritam Singh: The practical implications of the use of technology are often not accounted for. It is imperative to consider the farmer’s perspective before professing a new technology. Promotion of new technology also demands a change in the mind-set of farmers while creating awareness. The farmers need to be properly educated about the new interventions and community examples should be set to enable a wide spread use. For example, with the use of the Happy Seeder, the cost of production has gone up due to increased demand of urea in the field. The technology is also not economically viable due to the increased use of diesel. These inferences are drawn from practical application of the technology.

Dr Yadav: It is essential to let the farmers modify the techniques according to their needs as the diverse agricultural conditions in the country demand. Poor investment capacity of farmers, lack of machinery and herbicides, lack of awareness, lack of knowledge about the CA varieties and hybrids etc., are some of the pertinent issues that demand action. Also, the focus of the research in agricultural technology should be to design machinery compatible with small land holdings as the number of small farmers outweigh the big farmers in India.

What are the technological interventions and best practices possible to deal with the issue of stubble burning?

Dr ML Jat: Both in situ and ex situ agricultural management practices can be adopted to manage crop residue. Ex situ practices involve taking the residue away from the field and converting it to compost or baling rice residue for power plants (Lohan et al., 2018). However, there are trade-offs for ex-situ management of crop residues, and they are not always economically viable or sustainable. Labour availability and costs are a problem, and therefore composting is not an economically viable option for the farmer. Baling is also not a viable option as the baler costs more than 10 lakhs, and the operational window to use it is 10-15 days. For the rest of the year it lies unused, and even the depreciation costs cannot be recovered. Moreover, taking out residues from the field and not recycling them back are counterproductive for soil health.

The in-situ practices involve managing the residue at the site of production. There are technologies like Rotavator, and mulcher but they are not entirely suitable and could lead to higher production costs and delayed planting of wheat crop. The concurrent use of super Straw Management System (SMS) and Turbo Happy Seeder efficiently takes care of the residue and also brings down the operational cost of preparing the field for the next crop. It performs three operations at one go hence increasing time efficiency: shredding the harvested crop, spreading the stubble across the swath and simultaneously sowing the wheat seeds (Sidhu et al., 2015). Scientific studies have shown that it saves approximately 10 lakh litres of water on day one of seeding crop, increases profit amounting to Rs 20,000 – Rs 25,000 per hectare per year for a farmer. Gradually, it also leads to a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertilizers by the farmers. It eventually results in reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from the agricultural fields. In situ management with technology that takes care of the crop residue, not only comes with multiple benefits to the farmer, but also helps them in reducing risks and increasing profitability and can be the plausible solution to prevent burning.

Dr Rajbir Yadav: The practice of Conservation Agriculture (CA) involves sowing of wheat seeds in the field with the standing residue. The immediate sowing not only increases the growing period of wheat but also helps the crop to deal with the lodging and heat stress. It is a very cost-effective measure that saves the cost of tillage operations and results in a benefit of Rs 2000 per acre to the farmer, along with higher yield which is generally 1-5 quintal per hectare due to prolonged duration of wheat crop. This practice can also be a viable method for managing stubble and prevent burning. In particular, planting two varieties of wheat namely HDCSW 18 and HD 3117 (developed at IARI) in CA conditions can comprehensively mitigate the need for crop residue burning.

The government also has to make environmental friendly technologies and measures rewarding for he farmers. Right now the farmers in these areas are forced to grow rice because that is economically most attractive. Some form of subsidies should be introduced. Crops like pearl millet (bajra) that have a much lesser ecological footprint should be made economically attractive to the farmers.

Harish Damodaran: One way to deal with the issue of rice stubble burning is to propose crop and varietal diversification. For farmers in the north western region, growing Basmati and Parmal varieties of rice is economically profitable. The problem of crop burning is mainly due to the Parmal variety of rice – which has high yields and brings a good price. Thus, farmers can be weaned away from growing that variety only if an equally lucrative alternative is presented. Maize is often proposed as an alternative, however, yields for Kharif maize are low. The government is promoting winter maize which gives a high yield. However, the winter maize matures in May-June when there is water scarcity. But moving from rice to ragi or bajra is not going to happen overnight. People are not willing to pay good prices for these crops and the government will not procure them. The solution has to come from within the agricultural community.

How can these interventions be made more economically viable for the farmers?

Dr Jat: Farmers’ income can be increased by reducing the cost of production. However, with the use of expensive machines, the cost of production increases and the burning also reportedly increases. Also, with the introduction of the GST, the cost of agricultural machinery has increased further. It is not only the issue of eliminating burning but the solution should essentially come along with multiple economic benefits to the farmer. Recently, the Union Finance Minister made an announcement in his budget speech to provide a subsidy of Rs 1000 crore to promote in situ management scheme to manage crop residue. According to the scheme, individual farmers will receive 50% subsidy and cooperatives groups will receive 80% subsidy for investments in farm machinery like Happy Seeder, Straw Management System (SMS) etc. This subsidy scheme has been proposed keeping in view inability of small and marginal farmers to make such investments and to promote a business model and service window through collective groups that have the potential to provide more services, covering more farmers and more area.

Lohan et al., ‘Burning issues of paddy residue management in north-west states of India’ 81 Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews (2018) 693–706

Sidhu et al., ‘Development and evaluation of the Turbo Happy Seeder for sowing wheat into heavy rice residues in NW India’ 184 Field Crops Research 201-212 (2015).