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Stubble Burning Dropping Pollution to Severe Levels

Satellite images from NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System) Web Fire Mapper, of Tuesday 31 October 2017 clearly revealed that stubble burning became more aggressive in Punjab and Haryana, leading to haze, smoke and other environmental and health concerns, despite numerous warnings by a green court and environmental authorities. With dry and cold north-westerly winds blowing in from these states at speeds of 10-15 km per hour, it has contributed to the deterioration in air quality leading to smog and dropping pollution to severe levels in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Despite the 2015 National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on burning of paddy straw in States of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi, farmers continue this practice to make way for the next crop. NGT in its order fixed penalties for burning paddy residue, ranging from Rs 2500 to 15000 depending upon farmers’ land holdings, for every instance of crop burning. The NGT also ordered State governments to take punitive action against persistent offenders. It also directed the four States and Delhi to make arrangements to provide machinery free of cost to farmers with less than two acres of land, Rs. 5,000 to farmers with medium-sized land holdings, and Rs. 15,000 to those with large land holdings, for residue management.

Agriculture residue burning is commonly practiced in the Indian part of the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP), Indus in Punjab & Haryana and Gangetic Plains in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, primarily to clear the waste after harvesting and for preparing the field for the next cropping cycle in a short time. The predominant cropping system in this region is rice–wheat rotation, accounting for about 10 million hectare. Mechanization of conventional methods in seed-bed preparation and harvesting, like combine-harvester,  in the recent past and selection of certain crop varieties by the farmers in the region has resulted in large crop biomass leftover in the form of straw and stubble. While burning of crop residue is an economical way of clearing a field in the farmer’s perspective, the resulting effects on air pollution, health and atmosphere are alarmingly dangerous.

Agriculture residue burning is a global concern and is widely studied scientifically with respect to the emissions into the atmosphere, viz. aerosols and particulate matter and greenhouse gases (GHGs). These emissions are believed to alter the atmospheric physics and chemistry, thereby contributing to climate change. Many countries have banned the practice since 1990s by legislation policies. Punjab and Haryana are considered as the rice and wheat bowl of India and are also accountable for the highest residue burning in the country. Apart from the local air pollution effects, stubble burning in the two states is also believed to contribute to the photochemical smog in the IGP, especially in Delhi.

As a step towards effective mitigation, in 2005 the state Government of Punjab banned the practice of residue burning and subsequently re-imposed the ban in 2013 along with the Punjab Pollution Control Board to prohibit indiscriminate burning of agriculture residue through Section 19(5) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution Act), 1981.

Punjab government claims to have taken several measures including providing the Happy Seeder: “This is a machine developed by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) to plant wheat directly into harvested paddy fields without any other major operation, and to promote the use of straw baler and straw management machines for residue management. With machines like Happy Seeder, the straw is partly cut, chopped, and left as mulch. Mulch helps in reducing irrigation requirement and blocks the emergence of weeds. The crop planted with Happy Seeder is less prone to lodging. This is more profitable than conventional cultivation.”

There are other ways to tackle the problem such as Crop diversification.  Instead of paddy-the common rice, Basmati varieties of rice can be encouraged as Basmati is manually harvested and that can largely curtail problem of crop residue. Farming of sugar cane and vegetables can also be promoted.

Setting up more biomass-based energy plants is also an option. This will solve the problem of stubble burning and also generate electricity for the State. At present, Punjab has seven biomass-based power plants with an installed capacity of 62.5 megawatt. Punjab has substantial availability of agro-waste, which is sufficient to produce about 1,000 MW of electricity.

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