Delhi choking: Root cause stems from deep crisis in agriculture

The fires are so many and so widespread that satellites flying hundreds of kilometres above the Earth record their presence.

Written by Pallava Bagla | New Delhi | Updated: October 23, 2016 11:13 am
delhi, delhi pollution, delhi air pollution, delhi air quality, delhi pollutants, pollutant level, delhi air pollutant, national air quality index, R K Puram air, polluted rain, water pollution, delhi, delhi news, indian express news Hazy conditions over Delhi and NCR. Express Photo by Oinam Anand

North India faces an annual trauma as winter approaches — the air in the region having more than 200 million people becomes toxic. Fingers are pointed at the hand that feeds India, farmers in the granary of the country are rebuked asking them not to burn agriculture waste in their fields as their action fouls the air in mega cities like New Delhi, Lucknow and Allahabad.

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There is no doubt that after the monsoon ends the vast paddy fields in India’s granary Haryana and Punjab turn into cremation grounds where the left-over paddy straw is burnt in vast swathes.

The fires are so many and so widespread that satellites flying hundreds of kilometres above the Earth record their presence. Giving ‘Udta Punjab’ a whole new dirty air dimension.

This is also the time when generally the westerly winds prevail and a giant plume of smoke covers north India. Satellite pictures depict the smoke plume with clarity and alarm bells starting ringing in the corridors of power in India’s capital.

Last winter, even the Chief Justice of India passed strict orders and even contributed his ritual bit by car-pooling, despite his efforts the air remains toxic. Delhi’s air is a complex cocktail of noxious exhausts from automobiles, industry, thermal power plants and ‘charvested’ or burnt fields. Nobody really knowns who is the bigger culprit.

But it is easy to point fingers at the farmers little realising that behind the farmers burning agricultural waste is deep-deep crisis that is brewing in agriculture and it is hugely interlinked to all the elementary ingredients for a healthy life, air, water and land.

Today the fields of Haryana and Punjab are being tormented so much so that they are losing productivity, the haloed Green Revolution is turning them into debt ridden wastelands.

Many years ago, the region used to harvest one or two crops a year and in between fields were left fallow. This fallow period was very crucial as it gave the organic matter from agricultural waste time to decompose and mix with the top soil.

Today in most places at least three crops are being farmed if not four. As soon as one crop is harvested the farmers are eager to start planting the next crop. There is no time to let the paddy waste, to be used more judiciously, in the rush to drive ahead with the next crop the simplest alternative for farmers is to burn the waste, and to let the ash sink into the soil.

This gives agriculture a whole new definition, ‘slash and burn farming green revolution style’ or what I call ‘jhuming Punjab style’.

A vicious cycle is brewing, farmers have been lured into cultivating more and more from their fields mainly because of faulty agriculture policies followed for many decades. As the Indian agri-researchers gave the country more and more short duration varieties farmers kept embracing them with gay abandon, nobody even gave a thought what it was doing to the soil health and now leading to unprecedented air pollution.

If one travels through Punjab and Haryana in May and June which is the peak of summer and temperatures are sizzling hovering around the 45 degrees centigrade mark, it is traumatic to see fields being flooded with water pumped from deep inside mother earth and paddy sowing being done.

With the monsoon at least 6-8 weeks away, farmers start paddy cultivation in Sahara Desert-like weather conditions. Paddy is crop that thrives at times when water is plenty so artificially water is made available to flood the fields.

This early sowing of paddy leads to a double whammy, initially ground water is pumped up using copious amounts of energy. This not only depletes the water table which is most places has been falling to unprecedented levels recently NASA using its satellites called it ‘an unprecedented crisis of vanishing water’.

Remarking that “if measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water”, explained Matt Rodell, based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, USA.

NASA reported that groundwater levels have been declining by an average of one metre every three years (one foot per year). More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir. Who cares for sustainability!

The second big problem arises once the crop has been harvested which happens during the post-monsoon season, at that point the rice grains are sold at government determined minimum support prices and the farmers are left with a large amounts of straw. Unfortunately straw from paddy contains a lot of silica and is very rough and hence bovines find it very difficult to eat it. Now when the farmers are in a hurry to plant the next crop, they are left with no alternative but to hurriedly burn the agri-waste.

Waiting to make organic compost out of the straw or to roll it into bales and transport it to the few agri waste to wealth power generators is both costly on time and money.

So going in for ‘jhum agriculture with a Punjabi tadka’ by incinerating the waste on location is a cheap and simple solution as it costs merely a match stick. Organic matter is the life blood of any top soil but in regions of north western India organic carbon content is constantly being depleted at a rapid rate, experts say very soon they will turn into wastelands.

According to a recent State of Environment of Punjab published by the local government “open field burning of straw after combine harvesting is a common practice in the state in order to ensure early preparation of fields for the next crop. Punjab produces around 23 million tons of rice straw and 17 million tons of wheat straw annually.

“More than 80 per cent of paddy straw (18.4 million tons) and almost 50 per cent wheat straw (8.5 million tons) produced in the state is being burnt in fields every year. Apart from affecting the soil fertility, this also causes air pollution due to emission of large amounts of suspended particulate matter besides gases like methane, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide among others leading to various health hazards like respiratory, skin and eye diseases.

“Intensive agriculture is also a contributor to greenhouse gasses like, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide causing climate change.”

To top it all the State of Environment of Punjab report points out that “declining farm yield and income due to economic (high cost of inputs like, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and farm labour) and ecological (low productivity of soil, receding water table) factors is pushing marginal and small farmers into the vicious cycle of debt.

“The total indebtedness is around Rs 240 million (50 per cent each from institutional and non- institutional sources) for the loans taken for tractors, tube wells, farm chemicals, seeds, as well as, for other social needs. As per results of a recent survey, the indebtedness of Punjab farmers on an average is Rs 41,576 (against the national average of Rs 12,585). 65.4 per cent of farmer households are under debt in
the state, next only to Andhra Pradesh (82 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (74.5 per cent).”

So when most farmers are custodians of innate native wisdom why are they indulging in such profligate and damaging practices, unfortunately it is really the government’s agri-economic policies that are to blame.

Subsidised or free electricity to farmers makes them use their pump sets endlessly and then on top of it an assured minimum support price gives them a ready market, leaving no incentive to be considerate towards the top soil, deep acquirers and mother earth in general and now this new headache of being dubbed the fountain head of wide spread air pollution.

To solve this giant mess, knee jerk reactions like Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘odd even scheme’ to ration cars on the roads and passing dictates to farmers not to burn agri-waste and to penalise are just not going to work.

A comprehensive restructuring of the agricultural economy is required if denizens of Delhi and north India don’t want to choke to death.

Nobody has the time to implement such mega changes so the National Green Tribunal will keep passing more and more draconian but un-implementable orders and clean air which is really a fundamental right of every citizen will become more and more toxic by the day. A slow painful death is the only surety.

This is the weekly column by well-known science writer Pallava Bagla for PTI.