A farmer burns the stubble in a rice field in Karnal, Haryana, October 2018. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi.
So this is what has come to – a complete breakdown in governance in the world’s largest democracy in the context of managing air pollution and its health harms. With no accountability, no political party and no government – right up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi – taking ownership of the problem, a population larger than that of the entire continent of north America now depends on meteorology, and a single-judge committee appointed by the Supreme Court on October 16 – to save it from disease, disability and death triggered by toxic air. Add to this the intimate connections between air pollution and COVID-19, and we’re all staring at a public health disaster.
This is not an overstatement. Consider the evidence.
Every autumn, almost like clockwork and with increasing intensity, stubble-burning kicks off North India’s pollution season. These fires are so large that they can be seen from Earth orbit. This year, NASA satellite data began showing fires and small spikes in PM2.5 concentrations in the first days of October itself. The worst is still yet to come.
Some estimates suggest that every year, stubble-burning contributes 5-8% of Delhi’s particulate pollution on average. But in the winter of 2019, the number of fires peaked to around 4,000 per day by October 31, and crop-residue burning in Punjab and Haryana accounted for 44% of the air pollution on November 1, 2019, according to Central Pollution Control Board member secretary Prashant Gargava. Earlier today, Indian Express reported, “According to SAFAR, the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality monitor, farm fires accounted for 22% of the air pollution in the national capital on Saturday, and 17% on Sunday.”
So any measures to deal with stubble-burning, if successful, are bound to be significant.
North India’s unique geography, with the Himalaya as a physical barrier to the north, preventing poor air from dissipating quickly, so pollution generated in the region remains trapped there for long periods. As the monsoons recede and the air becomes cooler and drier over the winter months, wind speeds also come down. The temperature inversion – when lighter, warmer air rises over cooler, denser air and traps it underneath – further confines pollution to the ground level, and keeps atmospheric particulate concentration high.
Indeed, air pollution in this region is bad all year around – but during autumn and winter, the Indo-Gangetic plain’s (IGP’s) geographical and meteorological misfortunes combine with anthropogenic reasons, like stubble-burning, to create a perfect storm. And with nothing to wash or blow away particulate matter, smoke from the fires adds to the already high pollution load, and settles closer to the ground. As a result, the northern plains together become one gigantic bowl of pollution that its residents are forced to breathe for months on end.
The fact that this is also the beginning of the festive season, when economic activity spurts – including Diwali, when toxic firecrackers abound – adds to the north’s dystopian sheen, making it look like a fragment that has drifted from a bleak future to the present.
We can’t change geography or meteorology, but we can manage human-made factors like straw-burning and use of firecrackers.
According to a study published a couple years ago in The Lancet, no state in India had an annual population-weighted ambient mean PM2.5 level less than the WHO recommended level of 10 μg/m3 in 2017. It also reported that 77% of India’s population was exposed to a mean PM2.5 level of more than 40 μg/m3 – which is the recommended limit set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards of India. The study also estimated that as a result, air pollution killed 1.24 million Indians in 2017.
This figure – though alarming – shouldn’t be surprising. The IGP itself is home to about 40% of India’s population, and smoke and other substances rising from the IGP propel pollution levels to a hundred-times beyond the WHO’s recommended safe limits. According to one study, particulate pollution over this area has risen 72% from 1998 to 2016. India and China even have a word for this event these days: airpocalypse.
A University of Chicago tool released last October indicated that the average person living in the IGP region – overlying Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal – can expect to lose about seven years of their expected lifetime because of this airpocalypse.
Finally, of course, we are also dealing with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world, the epidemic sweeping through India, this year. India has thus far reported 7.5 million COVID-19 cases, just behind the US’ 7.9 million. A growing number of studies have linked the intensity of local outbreaks COVID-19 in different parts of the world to higher pollution.
With more early fires showing up this year, some experts fear the corresponding pollution could be worse. Some others are a bit optimistic that the wind may yet blow away some of this pollution, but again, that depends on forces beyond our control.
Stubble-burning isn’t new. Farmers in north India use it to quickly clear their fields of straw, in the short window between the end of the rice-harvesting period and the wheat-sowing period. But its effects weren’t always this bad. The burning began to affect North India’s pollution more severely after a 2009 government order requiring farmers to sow their rice seeds later than usual in the summer.
The crux of the problem is that India is growing the wrong crop: rice is water-intensive; paddy needs standing water in its initial days; and we grow too much of it. And it’s growing the wrong crop in the wrong states: Punjab and Haryana, and to some extent UP and Rajasthan – all of which are short on water, including groundwater. And all of this happens at the wrong time.
A few decades ago, the government’s minimum guaranteed price for rice and excessive subsidies encouraged farmers to grow so much rice that India is today one of its largest exporters. Even the government’s own stock is now more than twice the required level. As a result, the country has also become a net-exporter of water.
Rice is not the best crop for a water-poor region. India began growing rice in Punjab’s wheat bowl in the 1960s, with the help of Public Law 480, with a view to make India self-sufficient in food. But this programme should have stopped long ago.
After 2009, the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water act of 2009 required farmers to sow their fields in June instead of April. The intention was to ensure that the first monsoon rains would adequately recharge groundwater reservoirs when the rice needed it the most. But irrespective of whether this move actually saved water, it delayed the time of harvest. As a result, the window of time farmers had between the rice and wheat seasons shrunk, forcing them to clear their fields as quickly as possible. And fire is quick.
At this point: enter meteorology. Until September, densely populated urban areas experience mixed winds, including the moisture-laden easterlies and south-easterlies. But by October, the winds change direction, blowing in from the northwest. So if paddy fields are on fire later, thanks to the later harvest, smoke from the fires head to downstream areas of the IGP, and directly towards the urban areas – especially the National Capital Region. This causes the air to turn awful for the 46 million people who breathe it there.
Burning of crop residue releases toxic gases into the air – and also burns off precious nutrients in the soil, reducing crop yield and ultimately requiring greater amounts of fertilisers, as the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has discussed. Fertilisers also increase the cost of farming, both for farmers and for governments via subsidies.
In Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, farmers reportedly produce almost 50 million tonnes of straw a year and burn about four-fifths of it. CIMMYT’s more conservative estimates suggest farmers in North India burn around 23 million tonnes of straw from their rice harvests. If this enormous mass of straw is packed into 38-cm-high bales each weighing 20 kg, and piled on top of each other, the stack would reach from Earth’s surface to the Moon. Now imagine burning this amount of straw, and inhaling the emissions.
Since the current year promises a bumper harvest, Jai Dhar Gupta, who sells products like masks and air purifiers in India, told the New York Times, “we’re just sitting ducks.”
The ultimate tragedy is that we have solutions available. We don’t have the intention to use them.
Air pollution is caused by several factors – but even dealing with one, stubble-burning in this case, meant preparing a thought-through plan and implementing it around April-May. This would have included the Centre and state governments persuading farmers to switch to planting nutrition-dense coarse grains that use less water, such as pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, rye and maize, all of which are traditionally grown in India. The food and agriculture ministry could have done this by offering higher subsidies via minimum support prices.
These grains also have a high iron content – suited to a country that harbours one-quarter of the world’s cases of anaemia. More broadly, there’s no reason to deplete North India’s already dropping water table by growing a water-hungry crop in a water-scarce area when other nutrient-dense native grains can be planted. These traditional crops will also give farmers a longer window of time to clear their fields, so they don’t have to slash and burn. Minimum support prices are an easy way to guide farmers on what they should grow.
But that wasn’t done.
Even now, there is one more way. And if it’s implemented sincerely and quickly, we can still keep North India from suffering too much this winter.
Since 2016, the CIMMYT has been pushing a ‘zero-till’ practice that, if adopted, it claims could lower emissions by almost 80%, while increasing productivity and profits. No-till practices that leave straw on top of the soil in the form of mulch can preserve soil moisture, improve soil quality and increase yield in the longer run, said principal scientist of the CIMMYT M.L Jat, who also coauthored a research article on the topic published in August 2019.
In addition, the cheap Pusa ‘decomposer pills’ developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute purportedly convert crop waste into valuable fertiliser, instead of leaving it to be burnt.
While Chief Minister Kejriwal has every now and then overstated the contribution of stubble-burning to Delhi’s wintertime air pollution, it remains the case that North India’s winter pollution won’t go away unless we address stubble-burning. In this sense, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is correct.
And in this regard, it’s unclear how much support Kejriwal has been getting from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi is a political rival who has remained largely indifferent to the criticism heaped upon him nationally and worldwide over his failure to act on practical matters like stubble burning, as well as the bigger picture of expanded coal-power production. His Bharatiya Janata Party, in power at the Centre, is already facing considerable heat from farmers after passing three controversial agriculture bills in Parliament last month.
But all these solutions that we have discussed have been around for a number of years. If North India’s residents continue to suffer through severe pollution every winter, it is only because of the lack of both the state’s and the Centre’s intentions and will.
And now, in place of the might of the entire government, which should have been pressed into the service of solving this grand problem, stands a single man: Justice Madan Lokur, appointed by a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde. Justice Lokur is to be a single-judge ‘committee’ to monitor and prevent instances of stubble-burning by farmers in three states.
In effect, he and his volunteer force of boy scouts and national cadets are all that stand between us and Airpocalypse 2020. Meanwhile, we hold our breaths in the hope that instead of focusing on unscientific red herrings like smog towers – like the Supreme Court has already done – a strong and fearless judge will do the right thing and save millions of lives.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is the president of clean air non-profit Care For Air and author of Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution, to be published by Hachette next month. Parts of this essay have been adapted from a chapter from the book.