Debate: Crop-Burning Fixes Must Not Preserve Paddy-Wheat Status Quo

Waste-to-energy is an expensive solution to a waste problem, not to an energy problem.

A man burns paddy waste stubble in a field on the outskirts of Chandigarh, November 8, 2016. Credit: Reuters

A man burns paddy waste stubble in a field on the outskirts of Chandigarh, November 8, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Most experts agree that the roots of the economic and agro-environmental crisis facing Punjab lie in the paddy-wheat cropping cycle and in the larger ‘Green Revolution’ that fuelled the cycle’s rise. It has led to stagnating farm incomes and a spurt in cancers driven by agro-chemicals. The veritable energy-irrigation nexus of subsidised power for the tubewell revolution has led not just to falling groundwater tables but also to a financially struggling electricity board and state government.

Punjab’s massive grain production, together with a substantially undermined Public Distribution System, has led to foodgrains rotting in the Food Corporation of India’s granaries. This, even as India ranks 100th among 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index.

So it is strange that when national attention is (all too briefly) focussed on the problems of Punjab’s agriculture thanks to the blame it shares for Delhi’s air pollution, rather than to argue aggressively for resources to achieve yet another revolutionary transformation of its agricultural landscape, the state instead pushes options to perpetuate the status quo. In fact, so desperate is this desire that the [Punjab government has announced a $1 million reward to anyone who can come up with a viable system to manage stubble waste without burning.

A solution that’s being promoted aggressively is the Turbo Happy Seeder, which, together with the Super Straw Management System, leaves the stubble and loose straw spread uniformly over the field. While the system is laudable for incorporating waste in situ, the other environmental issues from the paddy wheat cycle that produced that waste will continue. In any case, the government needs to consider if its high cost was the only stumbling block to adoption when only 312 farmers (of 25 lakh) used the system.

Other methods of dealing with waste are more dubious. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has been asked to mix stubble with coal for burning in its plants. As has been discussed previously in The Wire, this may lead to more air pollution because stubble-carrying trucks will be on the move more and because the NTPC’s (already heavily polluting) boilers will be working with fuels are not designed for. One hopes that this idea dies a natural death.

Other solutions also fall within the broad waste-to-energy bracket. The best thing the NTPC could do to help clean the national capital’s air is shut down its Badarpur plant and, in the interim, build a waste-to-energy unit to cater to Delhi’s landfills and (seasonally) to paddy stubble. Since this summer, talks have been on between the NTPC and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation to realise this. Of course, there are other environmental issues that could arise from such a plant – as attested to by an official who told the Times of India that the required air quality management apparatuses are not cheap and difficult to maintain: “It is easy to get the technology, secure a certificate and then let things pass. … What is the point if the waste plant ends up emitting [a] stench?”

Evidently, the prime objective of expensive waste-fired plants is not power generation but to save precious land from being used as landfills. However, this caution is not reflected elsewhere. For example, Prem Shankar Jha’s excellent piece in The Wire (November 17, 2017) argues that waste-to-energy technologies could be a solution not just to crop burning in Punjab and Delhi’s landfill crisis but also to India’s energy problems, claiming the energy produced could reduce India’s balance of payments deficit by a spectacular 1.5%.

One such technology he mentions is gasification, the problems with which have been delineated before in The Wire. Another is the Fischer-Tropsch process, which Jha argues can “convert any form of biomass” to any desired transport fuel, from compressed natural gas (CNG) to aviation-grade jet fuel.

The Fischer-Tropsch process (usually applied to coal) accounted for nearly a quarter of the coal-rich, oil-poor Nazi Germany’s automobile fuel through World War II. It is an expensive process usually limited to such wartime situations. Indeed, there are only a handful of such plants in the world. Most of them utilise easy feedstock like coal instead of biomass. It is no coincidence that both proposed waste-fuel projects (one of which subsequently fizzled out) mentioned by Jha are to produce a type of fuel limited to very specific use-cases in aviation. The aviation sector is a big contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions, and is also technologically wedded to hydrocarbon fuel for the foreseeable future, so it may be limited to expensive options like biofuel to be seen to be doing something about climate change.

But for automobile fuel more generally, in India, the transport minister has set an ambitious target for a switch to electric-only vehicles. Takeaway: Increased petrol/diesel production may be neither necessary nor desirable.

Having previously committed to building a Rs-600-crore bio-ethanol plant to process a bare 150,000 tonnes of stubble annually, Punjab has now pledged another Rs 10,000 crore and substantial in-kind resources to a Chennai-based firm for some kind of waste-to-bioenergy scheme (to produce a fuel unreported in the press using a process still not available on the firm’s “under construction” website as of December 21). From the vague details that have been reported, it seems likely to be some form of biochar, about which Jha has also written.

Waste-to-energy is an expensive solution to a waste problem, not to an energy problem. Policymakers may do well to pursue the first of the three Rs of waste management: reduce. But this would require us to reimagine Punjab’s agricultural landscape – a Punjab without groundwater-guzzling paddy and without a paddy-wheat cycle. Crop diversification is very desirable. Some have proposed that restrictions on alcohol production from maize be lifted so it can be grown as an alternative. This could make for an intermediary or partial solution. However, a maize based monoculture could also lead to new problems, such as the previous monocultures of Punjab.

The state’s well-developed agricultural research and extension system could suggest a range of cropping patterns suited to particular microclimates in the region, supported by subsidies and price incentives. A national dietary shift (led by PDS, public health messaging and price and extension support) away from grain in general and from wheat and rice (to millets and pulses) in particular could have health and environmental benefits. All this will require state support, which is justified considering the Green Revolution has made not just for a rural environmental crisis in Punjab but also an urban environmental crisis in Delhi.

Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science. His other writing is available here.