Author: Dilsher Singh
Paddy intensification in Punjab has its origins in the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a set of policies introduced by the Indian government during the late 1960s to boost crop yields in Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh.
These policies introduced High Yielding Varieties (HYV) seeds of rice and wheat, the development of groundwater irrigation facilities, and the mechanisation of farming practices, which allowed farmers to harvest more crops at a faster rate than before. Despite changes to the environment and economy since the 1960s, farming policies continue to favour the paddy-wheat monoculture system, which continues to deplete Punjab’s natural resources.
The introduction of the minimum support price (MSP), which provides farmers a guaranteed income for their crops, has contributed to this unsuitable cropping practice as the MSP for paddy has increased by 182% since 2010-11, making it a desirable crop to sow.2 With assured prices for paddy, farmers in Punjab started to grow paddy during the summer months after the harvest of wheat. Paddy cultivation expanded from a mere 7.1% of cropped area in 1973 to 36% in 2013.3
Sowing paddy over time has led to a sharp decline in Punjab’s groundwater; farmers used tube wells to irrigate ‘sathi’ paddy (60-day crop) during May and June instead of waiting for natural rainfall during the monsoon months, contributing to a decline in groundwater.
Punjab enacted laws to protect the shrinking groundwater level by imposing fixed paddy sowing and transplantation timescales under the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act of 2009. These timescales shorten the time available to prepare the land, thus making stubble burning a compelling option to prepare the land quickly before the next sowing period.
Farmers burn stubble twice a year – once in summer and at the beginning of winter. Stubble burning during September and October has a prolonged effect on air pollution, as plunging temperatures matched with low wind speed spread push smoke out of the region into dense cities.
During September and November last year, Punjab had recorded 73,883 incidents of stubble burning; farmers had produced 20 million tonnes of paddy residue, of which 980,000 tonnes were burnt.4 Around 17 million tonnes of rice straw is produced every year in Punjab, of which 90% is burnt in open fields.5 Historically, Amritsar burns more area of straw (673.99 km2) than other districts of Punjab, followed by Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Firozpur, and Patiala.6
Stubble-burning releases harmful chemicals into the air and has a detrimental impact on the environment and the health of both humans and animals. According to one study, one tonne of straw has the potential to release up to 60kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), 199kg of ash, and 2kg of sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere.7 Punjab Agricultural University found that crop residue contains around 6.0 million tonnes of carbon that on burning produces around 22.0 million tonnes of carbon dioxide within 15–20 days.8
The Consequences of Stubble-Burning
Not only does the burning of stubble increase ozone concentrations in the atmosphere, but it can also raise the temperature of the soil to 33.8– 42.2oC, which results in changes to the carbon-nitrogen equilibrium in the upper layer of the soil.9 In return, soil nutrients are lost and organic carbon within the soil is emitted into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, causing severe atmospheric pollution.10
The health impacts of straw burning range from acute respiratory infections, eye irritations, to skin diseases. Researchers have highlighted several health implications from straw burning, including coughing, emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, eye irritation, corneal opacity, and skin diseases.11 Studies have also shown that smoke directly caused symptoms relating to eye problems, including eye-watering, eye irritation, conjunctival hyperemia. High levels of CO2 in the blood can also convert normal haemoglobin into deadly haemoglobin, reducing blood efficiency to take oxygen around the body.12
More than 60% of the population in Punjab live in rice-growing areas and are directly impacted by air pollution from stubble burning.13 A study conducted by researchers found that there was a 10% increase in patients admitted to hospital in rice-wheat belt areas of Punjab within 20-25 days of burning.14 A survey conducted by the Adesh Institute of Medical Sciences and Research and the Association of Physicians of India also found that nearly 85% of respondents from the Bathinda and Muktsar districts suffered from at least one health problem due to the smoke from stubble burning, including nose, throat and chest irritation.15
What are the Alternatives?
Studies show that farmers have alternatives to stubble burning, but not all options are viable:
- The Punjab government has been encouraging the diversification of agriculture in Punjab, allocating Rs 2000 million to boost crop diversification in the state.16 In theory, this would allow farmers to move away from the rice-wheat cropping pattern towards less-water intensive crops, and mitigate the effects of straw burning. However, farmers are sceptical, as experimenting with crops that are not backed by assured procurement could leave them vulnerable at the hands of private companies.17 Crop diversification would also require new equipment, training, and infrastructure – all incurring an additional cost to Punjabi farmers.
- Researchers suggest that farmers could hire temporary labour to collect the paddy to avoid stubble generation.18 This would serve two purposes; creating employment for labour within Punjab, and also mitigating the need for burning paddy. However, this option would be extremely unprofitable for farmers, as they would have the pay labourers to conduct the work. Many labourers have also returned to their native states since the COVID-19 pandemic – providing farmers another reason to burn stable to clear fields quickly.19
- The ‘Happy Seeder’ tractor has been introduced to farmers as an alternative to straw burning. The tractor allows farmers to easily shred the soil, which in return ‘enriches’ the soil by helping it to retain moisture, improving overall soil quality. According to a study conducted by Shyamsundar et al. (2019), the Happy Seeder overtime is 10% more profitable to farmers than the burning option.20 The adoption of the Happy Seeder also faces obstacles, such as machinery costs, limited incentives to change practices, and uncertainty amongst farmers on new technologies. The machine can cost up to £11,229, which is a heavy upfront cost for any farmer, and those who can afford the tractor are faced with long waiting times.21 These barriers could be addressed by the government and private-sector investment through a combination of grants and rental schemes that could entice farmers to make the switch.
- The Indian Agriculture Research Institute developed a bio-decomposer to turn crop residue into manure in 15 to 20 days. After this period, it has to be dried under direct sunlight for a few days, and then the compost is ready to use. Although this method is relatively cheap and sustainable, the product’s success in the field is yet to be studied.
Punjab needs more viable and affordable solutions to tackle the issue of stubble-burning. Solutions offered to reduce stubble-burning practices are not affordable or tested long enough for tangible results.
In the long-term, the Government needs to provide feasible alternatives to the wheat-rice cropping cycle to prevent mass stubble burning practices within the state or distribute grants to support farmers with moving towards sustainable straw management methods.