Every year in late September and early October, the air quality over north-western India starts deteriorating. This time of the year also marks the onset of festival season in India. But more so it is the time when the summer crop, commonly known as rabi crop is being harvested and the stubble/crop residue is put to fire to prepare the fields for the early sowing of winter/ kharif crop. Stubble burning helps reduce the time gap between the harvesting of one crop and sowing of the next crop.
What is stubble and need for Stubble burning
Stubble is the leftover part of the plant after the grains are harvested. In olden times when agriculture was labour intensive and mechanization was minimal, crops were harvested by human labour, using harvesting tools like axe, sickle Etc.
The crop was cut as close to the ground as possible. Then the cut crop was piled into stacks for thrashing the grains and the leftover was used as fodder for animals.
As a result very small portion of the stem was left in the fields. When the field was prepared for the next crop and water was left to stand on the field, this residual stem used to get soft and when ploughing was done, it used to get mixed in the soil and thus added to its nutritional quality. So, it was a win win situation – for the soil, the air and the farmer.
Now with the advent of mechanization, combine harvesters are used for harvesting the crop. The crop is thus harvested at a level close to the part bearing the grains. Thus a longer part remains standing on the fields, which cannot be ploughed back using traditional techniques. Hence, it is put to fire and when the land cools the process for sowing of next crop is started. This not only results in loss of fodder but is harmful for the soil fertility as well as the air quality.
Harmful effects of stubble burning
The most directly observed effect is on the air quality. Stubble burning produces thick smoke that not just deteriorates the air quality of the place but the same gets carried away to far off places with the wind. Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana has affected the air quality up to Delhi.
The resulting pollution results in increased incidence of respiratory allergies and respiratory tract infections. This is more harmful in the prevailing times when COVID-19 is prevalent. The causative virus of COVID-19 also mainly affects the respiratory tract and lungs, though its long term effects on other organs are still being researched.
Besides, the emanating smoke greatly reduces the visibility on the roads and highways thus leading to accidents and mishaps that result in loss of precious lives.
The green house gases thus emitted like methane, carbon dioxide etc. contribute to global warming and damage the ozone layer that protects the Earth’s atmosphere from harmful Ultra Violet rays.
The heat emanating from the fire destroys friendly microbes in the upper layers of the soil that are helpful in enriching the soil for the next crop. It thus disturbs the pH of the soil and reduces its fertility.
There is also the risk of the fire going out of control and spreading to human habitations leading to loss of life and property.
The black soot that emanates from the smoke tends to settle on electricity transmission wires thus damaging them.
Why it is popular and what is the alternative
Stubble burning is a cheap method of getting rid of crop residue, it is certainly not the best one. It is thus increasingly resorted to as the alternative is relatively costly. The government has popularized the use of ‘Happy Seeder’. It is an Indian manufactured machine that cuts the stubble into pieces and scatters it over the field and also helps in sowing the next crop simultaneously. However the cost factor and availability of the Happy Seeder are major impediments to its popularity.
Role of Pollution Control Board
The Agriculture Department in collaboration with teams from the Pollution Control Board conduct regular checks to prevent farmers from burning stubble. They are at times successful in enforcing the ban on stubble burning, while at other times they have to face opposition from farmers and villagers who argue that in the absence of a viable alternative, they have no other option but to burn the crop residue.
Enforcement of the ban on stubble burning can be ensured only if an alternative is put in place, which is economically viable and socially acceptable. Increasing the availability of Happy Seeder machines, ramping up their production to reduce costs, subsidizing their purchase, involving farmers cooperative societies to make available these machines to farmers with small landholdings and rewarding farmers who do not resort to stubble burning are some of the measures that will help in reducing the menace.
Role of the National Green Tribunal
The National Green Tribunal was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010. It is responsible for the expeditious disposal of issues related to the environment.
In the past few years the NGT has been proactive in holding successive state governments responsible for enforcing the ban on stubble burning and ensuring that air quality is maintained and demanding periodic action taken reports. NGT has stated that pollution free environment is as much the right of every citizen as it is the obligation of every state.
It has time and again held the state governments responsible for ensuring a ban on stubble burning either by creating awareness, providing incentives or taking punitive action against the violators.
The road ahead
Statistics and satellite imagery has shown that incidents of stubble burning have not reduced significantly over the years. The governments need to devise a multi pronged approach to deal with this problem. A one size fits all approach will not yield desired results.
Creating awareness is the first and foremost method. Using role models among the farming community who have found economic ways to deal with the stubble will help the farming fraternity to relate better to the issue. It will help in better sensitization as such role models will have a greater moral authority.
Second is providing incentives, which could be in the form of monetary compensation or subsidized access to machines that shred stubble into pieces.
Thirdly the crop residue can also be used for making paper and cardboard by setting up small scale industries that cater to the needs of the particular area and also help in providing employment opportunities to the local population. Besides it would also help in preserving trees that have to be cut for providing raw material for the paper and packing industry.
Fourthly, stubble can be used as fuel to run biomass plants that generate electricity and help ease the stress on non renewable sources of energy like coal. Moreover coal based thermal power plants are more polluting than crop residue based biomass power plants.
We all have a collective responsibility towards preserving the environmental quality for our future generations. The best we can do for our children is ensuring a clean air, clean water and healthy soil for them to live in.
This is more so relevant in the prevailing times when the whole world is suffering due to the effects of the corona virus pandemic – there could be no better time to enforce the ban on stubble burning diligently.
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