NEW DELHI: Within a week or so, the national capital region will see a spike in air pollution levels as farmers across north India are likely to start burning wheat stubble following harvest of the rabi crop. Agricultural experts are recommending a major overhaul in policies to address this "deep-rooted" problem.
At a conference on 'Connecting the Dots — Air quality challenges in monitoring, implementation and health' on Wednesday, air quality and agricultural experts said the government needed to address the issue holistically and not just by penalising farmers. National Green Tribunal has imposed a fine ranging from Rs 2,500 to Rs 15,000 — depending on the farm size — on farmers who indulge in burning stubble.
"Banning and penalising farmers will not help because how will you identify which farmer is burning crop? It's difficult. Plus the farmer is burning it out of compulsion. The government can support some mechanisation at the village level for taking out the straw and then putting it to use by, say, composting it. The farmer should see economic value in the exercise," Ramanjaneyulu G V, executive director at Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said at the conference organised by Global Strategic Communications Council. The government now gives subsidy on equipment to sow stubble in Punjab and Haryana.
The paddy-wheat system leaves farmers with the sowing time of less than a month between the two crops, pointed out Umendra Dutt of Punjab-based Kheti Virasat Mission. Mechanised harvesting and monoculture of wheat and paddy are also behind the problem of stubble burning. "The cropping pattern should change. In Andhra, bean gram and black gram are planted while rice stubble decomposes on its own. The government should also procure pulses and oil seeds which are suitable for north India. The problem of stubble burning will never be solved otherwise," added Ramanjaneyulu. He explained that the amount of stubble generated is higher than the harvest. Every four tonne rice or wheat leave behind about six tonne straw. Nearly five-seven tonne straw per hectare stay unused. Just one tonne of straw burning can release up to 3kg particulate matter (PM), 1,460kg carbon dioxide (CO2) and 199kg ash.
While Delhi and the rest of the NCR are exposed to severe levels of pollution, burning also leads to an immediate decline in the bacterial and fungal population in the top 2.5cm of the soil. Repeated burning permanently diminishes the bacterial population by more than 50%, increasing farmers' dependence on fertlisers and pesticides. "The government subsidises nitrogenous and other fertilisers. Burning stubble in Punjab is equivalent to wasting subsidies worth Rs 500 to Rs 1500 crore," estimated Ramanjaneyulu.
'Proof on health impacts'
Sagnik Dey, associate professor at Centre for Atmospheric Sciences in IIT Delhi, said several studies in India showed that air pollution was strongly linked to severe health impacts like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart disease and mortality. "I think policy-makers are looking only at traditional journals," Dey said while answering a question on why the Centre is suspicious of reports linking air pollution and mortality.
He quoted nearly 21 medical studies published from 1980 onwards by Indian physicians and scientists linking air pollution with upper respiratory symptoms in the 1980s and lower birth weight due to mothers' exposure to polluted air in the 2000s.