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Stubble burning: Devastating effects, solutions, and possible outcomes

In 2021, contribution of farm fires to air pollution was 25%, it was 32% in 2020, and 19% in 2019, according to SAFAR, a forecasting agency under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences

Stubble burning: Devastating effects, solutions, and possible outcomes

Zenaira Bakhsh

As the stubble-burning season begins across villages in Punjab and Haryana, throats start burning and eyes start tearing, and around 250 miles away, intense grey layers of pollution cover the skies of New Delhi.

Stubble or parali burning is a method of removing paddy crop residues from the field to sow wheat from the last week of September to November. In this process, the straw stubble left after the harvesting of grains, like paddy, wheat, are set on fire.

On Friday, Punjab Agriculture Minister, Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal announced that the Punjab government has made available 1.33 lakh agricultural implements to the farmers on subsidy in order to manage the crop residue or stubble. Simultaneously, Punjab crossed 10,000 stubble-burning cases on Friday when in a single day the state recorded over 2000 stubble-burning incidents, leading to a 26.5% increase in burning cases as compared to last year during the same corresponding period, reported Indian Express.

Ajaypal Singh, a farmer from Punjab’s Bathinda city, depends on his five-acre land for livelihood. For him, the only way of removing the stubble from his farm at the onset of seeding season has been through burning his entire farm every year.

“Our income is low and none of us have big machines or tractors for removing the stubble, therefore, we are forced to burn our farms. Otherwise, we are not happy to put our farms on fire,” he said.

For farmers, there is a short time available between rice harvesting and sowing of wheat as delay in sowing wheat affects the wheat crop. Between the harvesting of the paddy crop and the sowing of the next crop, there is only a two to three weeks’ time window. The rice stubble burning is the highest in Punjab followed by Haryana, whereas Uttar Pradesh ranks higher in wheat stubble burning.

“Currently, our lands are wet. If we do not remove all the stubble right now, the lands will dry up, and then sowing new crops will be very difficult,” said Singh adding, “We cannot lose time.”

During the campaigning for Punjab Assembly polls this year, Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had promised to address stubble burning issue in Punjab. National capital Delhi, which is also ruled by AAP, is the biggest victim of stubble burning as the fumes from the crops' residue engulf the city every year, resulting in an alarming spike in air pollution levels in the capital, particularly in October and November.

In Delhi, the air quality index deteriorated further and moved from the ‘very poor’ category to the ‘severe category’ in some areas on Sunday. The average settled at an average of 397. The main reason for this is stubble burning.

“Some of the farmers in our village have purchased the machines through subsidies. We have around eight machines in our village. But the problem is that even after subsidies, most farmers cannot afford the basic price of these machines,” said Singh.

Moreover, as most farms are disconnected from main roads, Singh said that the machines are not able to reach the farms, forcing the farmers to burn the stubble. “Now they (Punjab government) are making strict rules and making things difficult for us. When farmers burn the stubble, they put a red entry on their lands,” he said, “when that is done, the farmer can neither sell his land nor take any loans. They even cancel the license, lodge FIR, and penalty”.

Singh believes that Punjab’s farming is facing troubles due to receding water levels, and the solution could be to change the varieties of crops “that are easier to grow, do not require much water, grow within 2-3 months only and leave very less stubble”.

“AAP claims that they have sent more than one lakh machines to Punjab. But I can tell you that Punjab has huge lands and these are not enough. Also, if they are giving us these machines, they should also give us extra land to dump all the stubble,” he added.

Anumita Chowdhary, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said that the burning of crop residue to clear the fields is a problem witnessed every year.

“How this will impact Delhi’s air quality will depend on the intensity of burning and also the direction and speed of the wind,” she said, adding if the wind is directed toward Delhi, and high transport wind comes at a speed, then the daily contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s pollution can be high.

“When the burning is less and the wind is not favorable, the contribution can vary between 4 to 6 per cent of the pollution problem in Delhi. But if the fire increases and the direction of the wind is toward Delhi like last year, it has even gone up to 30 per cent for a few days,” she said.

In 2021, stubble burning's contribution to the air pollution was 25 per cent, it was 32 per cent in 2020, and 19 per cent in 2019, according to SAFAR, a forecasting agency under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences.

“While burning stubble, the key pollutant is particulate matter. These are tiny particles, when you inhale them, they are so tiny that they go deep inside the lungs and even break through the blood barrier and enter the bloodstream,” she said.

Suggesting the possible action plans for stubble burning, Chowdhary said that firstly, the government should give subsidies to buy some implements which help mixing the straw with the soil when they are doing the seeding for the next crop which means that the farmers don’t have to burn the stubble. “Farmers can use it as a fertiliser,” she said.

The next solution, she said, is ex-situ which means that if there are industrial power plants in the region. These power plants can buy and utilise the straws as fuel, thus adding economic value to the stubble. “The farmers will have an economic incentive to not burn the straw,” said Chowdhary.

“Solutions exist but they should be reachable to the farmers. There should be proper infrastructure for the collection, transport, and storage of the stubble,” she added.

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