Smog Isn’t Just About Farmers – We Breathe the Soot of Our Own Ecological Sins

It’s not only our lungs but perhaps our brains that have become fogged. We have failed to see that historically, stubble burning contributes only 6% to the pollution, yet the public is quick to make the farmers the scapegoats, and not the policymakers.  

As the sun rises, the grey lingering smog comes alive in north India. Over the past few days (and decades), Delhi has become a toxic gas chamber signalling that all our tax rupees spent to clean the air have been wasted. AQI gauges are malfunctioning as air quality plummets beyond 500. But it’s not only our lungs but perhaps our brains that have become fogged. We have failed to see that historically, stubble burning contributes only 6% to the pollution, yet the public is quick to make the farmers the scapegoats, and not the policymakers.

One shouldn’t be too harsh on the public, as public experts and mainstream media are busy in political mudslinging and making the Punjabi paddy farmer India’s Public Enemy Number One. Without providing any real solutions, policymakers are keeping mum and deflecting the issue to the courts. Across state borders, the issue is highly politicised. So, it is time to examine the facts for ourselves.

The first practical consideration is ― air doesn’t respect political boundaries. Whether the factory or car is polluting in Gurugram or Noida or Bahadurgarh, people living in the NCR region have to breathe the same air. To get a shot at solving the problem, we have to consider the NCR region as one. Shifting factories from Delhi to the NCR regions of Haryana or UP is equally bad, if not worse.

Medical experts and researchers say that vehicular pollution is the main source of the toxic PM2.5 pollution. Industries come next, followed by construction-related activities which raise dust. Burning of coal and other biomass also contributes to bad air. Mumbai, which is right on the sea, saw very bad air days without the benefit of any stubble smoke. Vehicles and industries are the major source of air pollution, not farmers.

Stubble burning is episodic, occuring in a short window of time between the kharif harvest and rabi sowing among industrial paddy farmers, and contributes about 6% to air pollution. Stubble smoke is denser and visible to the naked eye, while vapours and NO2 and carbon monoxide emitted from cars and industries are not. Although these non-farm sources produce deadlier smoke, the non-visibility helps them evade public attention.

If we look closely, we find that every year, long after the stubble burning period is over, the air quality in the NCR region remains poor, if not severe. What causes the air to remain bad? When we compare the pollution data not just for Delhi but the entire NCR region, it is clear as rain that it produces the major chunk of the pollution it breathes. In the summer and monsoon months, due to favourable winds and weather, pollutants are removed from our skies, but when winter comes, all the pollutants condense over north India. The retreating monsoon winds also bring with them the pollution and smoke from all over the northern Indian subcontinent, not just India.

So, it is very wrong to vilify farmers for air pollution.

Having shown that stubble smoke is responsible for 6% of the air quality problem, we must try and find solutions for it. The stubble problem is new. Punjab and Haryana hardly grew paddy, because the local cuisine includes very little rice. Most rural households use wheat or corn as the staple cereal.

Paddy farming began in Punjab after the Green Revolution and the development of irrigation systems. Farmers were forced to shift from native landraces and crops to Green Revolution paddy seeds. These new varieties were bred for higher uptake of agri-chemicals like urea, potash, etc and focused on producing more grains. The collateral damage was cattle, the Indian farmer’s best friend. The newer seeds had edible grains, but the straw was no good for fodder.

Since it has no economic value and cannot be used as cattle feed, the government encouraged farmers to burn the paddy stubble. Over time, this post-harvest problem has picked up.

If it’s the government that started this problem, it has the moral duty to find a solution for it, too. Especially because a large chunk of the budget of the national clean air programmes go unused.

The simple and efficient solution is to give farmers price support of Rs 2,500 per acre to clear the stubble in an ecologically safe manner. An entire supply of stubble or parali-based raw material can be generated from paddy fields. If stubble or parali becomes economically valuable for farmers, no one would burn the fields.

Through a combined multi-state action plan, the government can have dedicated mandis for stubble paddy straw trading. Like paddy, its straw can also have an MSP-like programme. Now, you may be thinking this is a subsidy, but it isn’t.

Paddy straw or stubble has multiple uses and the government only needs to regulate the market by offering a floor price. From the biochar industry (carbonised biomass) to mushroom cultivation and sustainable packaging, state governments can take the initiative to help organise this sector and turn paddy straw from waste into raw material for various industries.

Taking an ecological step further, the government may have a special MSP for ecologically produced paddy. This would ensure that farmers are rewarded for growing basmati and other native landraces. The straw from these fields could help fill the national fodder deficit, which is 10-15% every year.

The stubble problem is an agrarian problem which can be easily fixed with the right policy decisions. The question is, will our policymakers actually listen and help make 2024 stubble burning free? It’s not just about the farmers. Every year, we breathe the soot of our own ecological sins.

Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst and writer. He is former director, policy and outreach, NSAI. He also hosts The Wire’s ‘Krishi ki baat/Farm Talks’. He tweets at @indrassingh