Interview: Alternate Use for Straw, Providing Machines to Farmers Only Solution to Stubble Burning

Winter air pollution need to be addressed as a regional problem; Delhi needs to bring its own pollution down another 60%, says environmentalist Anumita Roychowdhury.

New Delhi: Environmentalist and executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, Anumita Roychowdhury, spoke to The Wire about the sudden spike in air pollution witnessed in the National Capital Region every winter, particularly around Diwali and when farmers resort to burning stubble.

She spoke about how stubble burning was only one of the factors contributing to the pollution in the region and how a comprehensive plan to address air pollution is the need of the hour.

While last year, Delhi and surrounding areas witnessed a number of “hazardous” air days soon after Diwali when the Air Quality Index had dipped sharply, this year the air quality had turned very poor for a short period before strong winds led to some improvement. Also, the delayed Diwali this year means it will not clash with the farm fire period.

Roychowdhury insisted that more steps need to be taken urgently to address the issue.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Stubble burning is episodic, winter pollution is not about farmers alone

“This is the time of the year when winter sets in the wind gets calmer, the mixing height of the wind – how high it will rise to disperse – gets lower and the temperature gets colder. All of this means that the air is getting trapped very close to the ground level. And if air is trapped, whatever pollution is happening in your city is also getting trapped. On that the icing is that if the pollution is also coming from outside, like with the farmers burning the crop.

Having understood this, we should realise that fighting winter pollution is not all about the farmers. It is also about other sources of pollution. Also we should make a critical distinction between continuous sources of pollution and episodic pollution. The burning of stubble is episodic and not continuous.”

Farmers get small window to sow wheat

“Farmers have to change the crop now and they have a very small window. This is because the environmental concern over depleting ground water levels in Punjab delays the sowing period for paddy and that also delays the harvesting. And when they harvest, they have little time left to sow the new crop. Therefore, for them the fastest and easiest way to get rid of the stubble is to burn it.

That is why we see this intense burning happening and we need to address this – and not just because what it is doing to Delhi’s air, that is too elitist – but because it is fouling up the air of northern India, the Indo-Gangetic plain and also the lungs of the farmers.

The farmers need to be made aware about what burning of crop residue is doing to the air, to their own soil – because it burns and destroys the micronutrients and reduces soil fertility.”

Solutions are now known, taking them to every farmer is a challenge

Chowdhury also raised the issue of many farmers being poor and not having money and resources to invest in the implements and technologies that provide the solutions. “We understand the solutions today – but these are not easy solutions. We have figured out that farmers instead of burning the straw should mulch it in order to regain the nutrition for the soils. For that machines are available and the governments are subsidising them – Punjab has done to the extent of 80% of the cost.

Punjab has close to 50,000 machines and Haryana has around 20,000 machines, but question is making the machines available and ensuring that small and medium farmers have access to the machines on time and affordable rentals.”

Panchayats will play a key role in taking machines to farmers

“They are trying to do that through panchayats. The machines are getting registered. Panchayats will have to ensure the last mile, connect to the millions of farmers. We are talking of nearly 38 per cent of paddy crop area in Punjab and close to 18 per cent in Haryana, where fields are burnt. This would require tremendous capacity, outreach and communication.

Challenge is reaching the small farmers and scalability. Also, in this punitive action will not work.”

Also read: As Pollution from Stubble Burning Makes Headlines Again, Here Are the Issues at Stake

Burning of stubble began earlier this year

On the scale of farm fires going up over three times in Punjab and over 70 per cent in Haryana, she said, “a unique trend being noticed this year is early burning. This year burning began in September as against after mid of October. So the numbers are higher for this time of the year but we will have to wait for the season to get over to realise the overall burning.

It is good they are burning now when the wind velocity and dispersal is high. The rich farmers also burn stubble in California but they do so as per the forecast on wind and its direction.”

Aim should be to use straw for producing something, adding to farmer’s income

Asked about mechanised farming leaving larger amounts of straw as residue and alternate means of using it, Chowdhury said “we are more optimistic about the use of this straw. Though we have not found a magic bullet, the good thing is at least the process has started. So in addition to in-situ solution of mulching the straw, the ex-situ solution is how to use the straw to produce something and thus add to the income of the farmer.

In Punjab and Haryana, they have set up power plants, which are picking up biomass and they are using that for power generation. Besides Indian Oil Corporation has come forward to set up a plant to produce bio-CNG (compressed natural gas) with the stubble. We have also heard about Ikea talking about using it for making furniture. So we are looking at creating a new value chain around this straw. This would give farmers an economic incentive to not burn it.”

Delhi NCR shifting to use of agro-residue as fuel

“When we did a review of the industrial belt in Delhi NCR, we found that they are now switching from coal to using agro residue as a fuel. So that would be another pull factor for the straw. But to make it successful, we will need a very good collection and transportation system. At this moment, that is expensive and so the governments will have to pay some attention.

So the second machine involved in this is the baler that is using for baling the straw and compacting it for transportation. This would create a circular economy around this waste.”

Subsidy should deliver intended objective

On environmentalists objecting to payment of subsidy to farmers who burning the residue in their fields, Chowdhury said, “a subsidy should deliver on its intended objective.

Last year, we heard about Rs 30,000 crore being spent on just payments to the farmers. And it is like a bottomless pit, you don’t know where the money is going. How do you even ensure that those who take the money would not burn the stubble – especially if the machines is not available. So it is not a well-designed subsidy.

The money should be better invested in the system so that you get a bigger bang from it. A populist kind of political agenda would not work here.”

Also read: Winter Pollution: The Soot of Bad Policies

Punjab, Haryana governments have roped in more than half of the panchayats

On utilising the panchayats for ensuring use of machines by farmers to mulch the straw, she said, that is the kind of strategy that is being adopted.

“It is good to see how Punjab and Haryana are tracking the data as well. It covers how many panchayats they have been able to reach out to and how many machines have been registered with the panchayats. Governments have reached out to more than half of the panchayats.

The system they have worked out involves doing a good registration of the machines at panchayat level, create a roster and ensure that they reach each and every farmer.

The teething problems involve ensuring that the small farmers are able to afford these machines. The panchayats are the focus point but it is about how well you do it.”

Much of Delhi’s pollution is due to local factors

On the blame game in Delhi, about how much of its own pollution is due to internal reasons and how much of it is due to nearby states, Chowdhury said:

“As per data provided by SAFAR of Ministry of Earth Sciences, the pollution in Delhi due to other states depends on the velocity and direction of the wind. It usually varies between 4% and 30%.

But much of the pollution is local and since farm fires are sporadic, local reasons are largely to blame. We did a quality data and we found that during winter when you have Diwali and the farm fires happen, they do contribute to Delhi’s pollution. But from end of December to early January when we again get severe smog, the air quality again deteriorates and then it is not due to farm fires. It clearly shows that pollution is getting trapped and so we have to focus on local pollution.

For that we have to look at what are the key sources of pollution in Delhi NCR.

A lot of things have happened in Delhi. We have to give credit for that as well.”

Delhi has bent the pollution curve, levels coming down year-on-year

“Delhi is perhaps the only city in the country that has shut down all coal-powered plants, that has a clean fuel policy, that moved entire public transport to CNG, which has expanded natural gas in its legal industrial areas, where traffic restrictions have happened, better fuels have come and BS VI technology has been adopted.

Data is also clear that on year-on-year basis, pollution levels have been coming down in Delhi. It has bent the pollution curve.”

Delhi needs to improve public transport, waste management

“But Delhi still requires another 60% reduction to meet the clean air standards. Now imagine the scale and stringency of this action. All of us understood this during the lockdown when we had clear blue skies.

There are still some gaping holes which we need to fix. The first is transport sector pollution – we have still not been able to deal with the volume of traffic because public transport infrastructure is hugely deficit and therefore dependence on personal vehicles is increasing.

Waste management is the second big area. Municipal systems needed for 100 per cent collection of waste, safe disposal and recycling is not in place. And therefore waste accumulating in public place is the potential burning ground.”

Watch: Flooded by Gurgaon Waste Water, Villagers in Raota, Delhi, Have Been Suffering for a Decade

Big ticket action needed to bring Delhi pollution down another 60%

“Even though Delhi is the only city to have notified a clean fuel policy – and it does not allow use of coal, pet coke, furnace oil or dirty fuel – a large number of small scale industrial units in illegal and unauthorised areas continue to use these. It is very difficult to monitor them. We need to ensure that only clean fuel comes to Delhi and these industrial areas. This is the big ticket action we still need in Delhi.

Delhi’s overall pollution is down by around 25%, but it still has to bring it down another 60%.

We now have to go sector by sector. In construction, Delhi has taken some interesting steps. It is one of the few cities which have created a recycling facility where they collect the demolition waste, make new material out of it and use it in further construction. This entire loop has to be closed and expanded.”

Dust from unpaved roads, waste burning responsible for much of Delhi’s air pollution

“Delhi is also looking at hotspot action which is very important to see what is going wrong there. Our review revealed that in a lot of places like Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar the air pollution was due to unpaved roads because 12,000 trucks plying there kick up dust. Also there are places where waste burning happens or waste is recycled – as in Mundka or Bawana area – and it leads to air pollution. You also have plastic waste which cannot be further recycled and that accumulates in the open and is burnt.

This should be stopped and these recycle plants should be tied up with the incinerators for safe disposal of this plastic waste.”

Regional approach needed to fight air pollution

“Only city specific action is not good enough, you need a regional approach. In winter it is the entire Indo-Gangetic plain which gets impacted by pollution which is as bad as that of Delhi.

If the government does not have a plan at a regional scale then we will not be able to fix the problem.

In fact Delhi NCR and the stubble burning is one of the biggest message for the rest of India as to why we need to take a regional approach. I am glad that a comprehensive action plan that the Supreme Court has notified is meant for Delhi and the entire NCR – involving four state governments. And that is the approach we require.

The reason why we saw blue skies during lockdown is not because Delhi cleaned up but because the entire region cleaned up.”

Panel under former SC judge Justice Lokur will bring discipline in approach

As for former Supreme Court judge, Justice Madan B. Lokur, being made in-charge of a committee to look into the issue of air pollution, Chowdhury said he would be looking at the issue of stubble burning and this focussed approach would lead to discipline and ensuring that all the right systems are put in place for the scale of implementation which is required.

“So far the Centre and state governments have given some subsidy, some machines have arrived and some effort has been made to reach out to the farmer. Some plants have been set up to use the stubble. But while all of this is there on the template, the issue is of bringing granularity on the ground so that the right systems are put in place for covering every farmer.”