Combine Harvesters set to thicken Delhi's Smog

Since early November, Delhi and large parts of North India have been enveloped in a thick, grey smog, sparking concerns and a debate on what is leading to the rising levels of air pollution. A January 2012 paper by Ridhima Gupta from the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi is drawing linkages between the quality of air in the capital and agricultural practices during harvest season on farms in the neighbouring state of Punjab.

What is worse is that the problematic practice is set to spread further because more and more farmers in Haryana, Western UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are using combine harvesters in place of the old semi-mechanized tools and manual labour. So brace for more smog and mist, and the environmental damage that comes with it, in not just Delhi but also in Bhopal, Lucknow, Agra, Chandigarh, Jaipur and many more important North Indian cities. Incidentally, the practice of burning crop residues is banned by law in Punjab.

The paper entitled ‘Causes of Emissions from Agricultural Residue Burning in North-West India: Evaluation of a Technology Policy Response’ written by Gupta (See the link below for full report) argues that the burning of agricultural field residue, such as stalks and stubble, during the wheat and rice harvesting seasons in the Indo-Gangetic plains results in substantial emissions of trace gases (such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide) and particles (black carbon, organic matter etc.). Using past studies, Gupta points out that the burning of crop residues is peculiar to the 'rice-wheat cropping system', which is followed in states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh.

Gupta carried out a sample survey of farmers in Punjab, and found that the likelihood of using the combine-harvester increases when farmers grow coarse varieties of rice instead of fine-grained varieties such as Basmati. In plots that were planted with coarse varieties, farmers, on average, were 63% more likely to use combine-harvesters. Use of combine-harvester scatters residue and therefore makes the burning of biomass almost certain. The study found that farmers burnt 1% of the residue of the rice plant that they manually harvested, while they burnt 90% of the residue of the rice crop that was left by the combine-harvester.

Despite the potential environmental damage, farmers have a clear economic incentive to use the combine harvesters: in Ludhiana they save about USD 112 (Rs 6000 approx) per hectare by opting for such technology. The corresponding figures for farmers in Amritsar and Sangrur are USD 56 (Rs 3000 approx) and 102 (Rs 5500 approx) respectively.

What might be the way of mitigating the effects on air quality? By studying another sample of users of the Happy Seeder machine in Punjab, Gupta’s paper found that the latter ones plant seed into loose residue, making burning of residue unnecessary. (A machine, known as happy seeder helps sow wheat in the standing rice stubbles. This not only stops rice straw burning, but also helps improve soil fertility by incorporation of organic matter in the soil. For more information see the link below) Punjab is offering farm subsidies to encourage the use of happy seeder machines.
 
A comparison between the two technologies showed that Happy Seeder does not increase the cost of field preparation, but nor is there a substantial reduction in cost  - therefore farmers are not inclined to switch from combine-harvester to Happy Seeder machine. Gupta argues that it has to be demonstrated to farmers that they enjoy substantial savings in due course of time because the Happy Seeder machine can be brought into the field immediately after the rice harvest, enabling farmers to sow wheat while the rice straw is still too green to burn.

The study concludes that rice residue is largely burnt because of its limited value to the farmers both as livestock feed and non-feed use. Since the machinery for planting wheat into loose rice residue was so far unavailable, farmers burnt the rice residue. The Happy Seeder technology has made it possible to plant wheat into the loose residue thereby saving time.

For more details please see the following links:

Causes of Emissions from Agricultural Residue Burning in North-West India: Evaluation of a Technology Policy Response by Ridhima Gupta, (ISI Delhi), Working Paper, No 66–12, January 2012, South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), please click here to access

Ridhima Gupta (2011): Agro-environmental Revolution in Punjab: Case of the Happy Seeder Technology, Discussion Paper 11-11, September, Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Planning Unit, please click here to access  

Harminder Singh Sidhu (2008): Happy Seeder-An Effort for Rice Residues Management, Indian Journal of Air Pollution Control, Vol. VIII, No. 1, March, pp. 68-75, please click here to access
 
Smog persists, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana officials to meet tomorrow -Ashish Mukherjee, NDTV, 9 November, 2012, please click here to access

Smog warning: Worst is yet to come, The Indian Express, 8 November, 2012, please click here to access

Every breath you take, The Hindustan Times, 8 November, 2012, please click here to access

Delhi says we are clean, smog due to neighbours, The Indian Express, 8 November, 2012, please click here to access

Delhi's smog failure, Business Standard, 8 November, 2012, please click here to access

Pollution makes Delhi smog worse every year: CSE -Darpan Singh, The Hindustan Times, 8 November, 2012, please click here to access

Delhi smog lifts partially-Vivek Chattopadhyay, Down to Earth, 6 November, 2012, please click here to access

A Delhi particular, The Economist, 6 November, 2012, please click here to access

Delhi smog worrying, we'll take up matter: Chief Justice of India-Ashish Mukherjee, NDTV, 6 November, 2012, please click here to access

Smog screen in Delhi thickens, to stay -Neha Lalchandani, The Economic Times, 5 November, 2012, please click here to access


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