Trouble in the air

The higher incidence of crop residue burning in northern states is a matter of particular concern this year because the resultant spike in air pollution can exacerbate the prevailing public health crisis. Though, typically, these fires are noticed during the peak paddy harvesting season from mid-October to November-end, this year, they began in September and have increased menacingly in Punjab and Haryana. The Centre has, therefore, done well to ask the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi to initiate timely action to curb this practice. These fires have been estimated to cause between 30 and 45 per cent surge in winter air pollution in the National Capital Region and its adjoining areas in the past few years.

Sadly, the stubble fire-related components of the anti-pollution plans broached by most of these states and deliberated in their joint meeting with the Centre last week do not inspire much confidence. The basic approach to countering this menace remains more or less the same as has been tried out in the past with only limited success. No novel or out-of-the-box solution is on the cards except experimenting with a new microbial biomass decomposer developed by the New Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute. It converts crop remnants into compost, thus, obviating the need for torching it. This concoction is no more than an improved and relatively efficient version of the available decomposers, which have failed to catch the farmers’ fancy. Its plus point is that it cuts down the time taken for the bio-degradation of crop trash from the normal 30 to 40 days to just 20 to 25 days. Whether this is good enough for its large-scale adoption will be the farmers’ call.

The noteworthy point is that the harvested fields are set ablaze mainly to vacate them for sowing the next crop, mostly wheat, quickly and with least cost. The time window available for this purpose is merely 20 to 30 days. Most of the eco-friendly means of managing paddy stubble are either cost-intensive (such as the use of machines like happy seeders) or time-consuming (such as biodegradation). Straw burning, being quick and almost cost-free, has, therefore, become an economic compulsion for the farmers. Treating it as a punitive offence is the worst way to deal with it. The fines mooted in the existing anti-pollution laws are mostly less than the cost of removing the stubble manually or mechanically. The solution, therefore, lies in transforming this biomass into an economic good that can yield income for the farmers. One way to do so is to promote its use as feedstock or fuel for power plants and other industries.

It can also be converted into pulp for making paper, cardboard, disposable cutlery, and other useful items. Some public- and private-sector companies, including NTPC, are procuring crop residues for use as fuel, thus converting this waste into wealth. Start-ups and other entrepreneurs interested in collecting, processing, and selling the crop residues should get government backing and hand-holding. Some states, including Punjab, have mooted paying a premium on the minimum support price for paddy to growers who do not torch their fields. This suggestion merits consideration.


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