Managing Air pollution From Crop Burning
Energy Future|January - March 2021
The perils of crop-residue burning contribute to major environmental degradation. In this article, TCA Avni and Sunil Dhingra discuss how the practice of stubble burning is responsible for poor air quality and loss of agricultural biodiversity. They highlight the importance of managing paddy residue and offer sustainable solutions, incentives, and alternatives to crop burning.
TCA Avni and Sunil Dhingra

Google search trends indicate that the cooling temperatures in Delhi herald not just the approach of the winter season, but also trigger concern over the looming spectre of rising pollution and smog (Figure 1), in turn setting offdebates on policy actions and interventions. A significant contributor to the deteriorating air quality in winters in Delhi is the practice of burning of paddy residues from the kharif crops in the adjoining states. On peak stubbleburning days, it can even account for more than 40% of Delhi’s air pollution!

There are many factors behind these paddy field fires. The cultivation of rice and grain in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh traces back to the Green Revolution, when cultivation of high yielding varieties of these grains was incentivized to alleviate the massive deficit in both grains and the foreign exchange reserves that the country faced in the 1960s. However, the consequent fall in groundwater reserves led the governments of Punjab and Haryana to push farmers to delay the planting of water-intensive paddy from the height of the dry season to mid-June in order to ameliorate the disastrous impact the water-intensive crop had on groundwater resources. The resultant shortened time between harvesting of the kharif crop and the planting of the rabi crop, and the rise in mechanization of harvest saw farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan opting for easy, quick, and unsustainable fires to clear stubble. Low-wind speeds in October – which prevent the smoke from being whisked away – further contribute to the accumulation of the air pollutants.

Active monitoring and real-time data of stubble-burning incidents over the past few years indicate that initiatives by the state and central governments seemed to be working (Figure 2). From 2016 to 2019, satellite surveillance by Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2019 reported 50% reduction in crop residue burning in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Real-time monitoring of paddy crop burning events by IARI suggests that the total number of crop burning events in at least Haryana and Uttar Pradesh continued to fall in 2020. However, as the surge in crop burning incidents in Punjab in 2020 showed challenges towards eliminating the practice of crop burning remain.

Air pollution scenario (Delhi)

Figure 1: Google search trends for air pollution in Delhi over the last 10 years Note: Graph is plotted against scaled search interest, with 100 marking peak popularity Source: Google Trends

In this article, we examine the potential solutions for paddy straw management. A possible solution to this annual problem can be through the creation of monetary value for straw. In other words, options which help farmers realize monetary gains from by-products, which otherwise would go up in smoke would hopefully incentivize farmers into spending the additional effort and cost to better manage residues either at the farm itself, or by pulling out paddy residue by buying or renting specialized machines (such as balers), and selling the residue forward for value addition instead of burning it.

Figure 2: Per cent change in burning events in 2020 vis-à-vis 2018 and 2019

» In-situ management In-situ (on-site) management of paddy residues involves the utilization in the fields themselves, and offers the advantage of reducing the costs associated with processing and transport. On-farm management involves either incorporating the straw back into the soil (for example, by ploughing the residue back into the soil or cutting the stubble before incorporating it into the soil) or using the straw as mulch. It is worth mentioning, both methods typically require the use of special machinery to manage the residues; incorporating them into the soil is typically more expensive and must be done with greater care.

» Ex-situ management Ex-situ management involves the baling and removal of the straw from the fields and transporting the bales to the sites of final utilization. Ex-situ management can utilize both farm and non-farm applications, some of which are discussed below:

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