It's time to move away from paddy-wheat cropping cycle to end air pollution

It's time to move away from paddy-wheat cropping cycle to end air pollution

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published Published on Nov 4, 2019   modified Modified on Nov 8, 2019

Air quality in North India in general and Delhi National Capital Region (Delhi NCR) in particular plunged to its lowest point in the recent years during October-November thanks to a variety of factors. Through media reports one comes to know that stubble burning (also called paddy straw burning/ crop residue burning) is chiefly responsible for the public health crisis in India's capital and its nearby regions. Data accessed from the website of System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR-India) – a research based management system under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) -- gives us a more holistic picture.    

SAFAR-India data shows that the share of external biomass in the concentration of particulate matter of size 2.5 micron (viz. PM 2.5) in and around the National Capital Territory of Delhi increased from 15 percent to 44 percent between 28th October, 2019 and 31st October, 2019. Although that share declined from the peak level to 17 percent on 2nd November, 2019, it went up to reach 25 percent on 3rd November, 2019. On 4th November, 2019, the share of external biomass in PM 2.5 concentration in NCT of Delhi was 14 percent. Chart-1 indirectly indicates that there are other sources of PM 2.5 concentration in air. News reports confirm that apart from stubble burning, air pollution in NCT of Delhi is caused by dust from construction activities, industrial pollution, pollution from thermal power plants, vehicular pollution, etc.

Chart 1: Share of external biomass in PM 2.5 concentration in Delhi-NCT (in percentage)
Chart 1 Share of external biomass in PM 2.5 in percentage

Source: SAFAR-India website,, accessed on 4th November, 2019

It could be observed from chart-2 that the total number of fire counts, based on satellite imagery, during the last week of October, 2019 (see the red line) more or less exceeded the total number of fire counts during the last week of October, 2018 (see the blue line). Therefore, it could be said that public policies and rules have failed to stop stubble burning by farmers.
Chart 2: Number of fire counts in Punjab and Haryana based on satellite imagery
Chart 2 Number of fire counts based on satellite images
Source: SAFAR-India website,, accessed on 4th November, 2019

Why does stubble burning continue?

Stubble burning in the Green Revolution belt happens because of farmers being trapped in the paddy-wheat cropping cycle since the last 40-50 years. However, the impact of crop residue burning (viz. air pollution) could be felt in Delhi NCR mainly after the enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act and Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009. As a result of these two legislations, paddy transplantation is postponed for a month or so from May-June to June-July so that farmers take advantage of monsoon rainfall instead of over-exploiting groundwater.

Once the sowing/ transplantation of paddy is delayed, their harvesting too is delayed. Hence, there is very little time left (almost 15-20 days only) for paddy harvesting in October and sowing of wheat seeds in November. The enactment of the water-preservation legislations in Punjab and Haryana also coincided with the period when MGNREGA expanded and the country saw construction sector boom, leading to an increased absorption of unorganized, unskilled workers in non-farm activities particularly from labour surplus states belonging to eastern part of India.

Wheat needs to be sown by November when there is right moisture content in the soil. Due to the short time period between paddy harvesting and wheat sowing, demand for farm labourers go up in rural areas. However, due to the shortage of supply of farm workers who migrate from states like Bihar thanks to the expansion of MGNREGA and construction sector boom, rural wages rise during the time of paddy harvesting. This is more evident in recent years. So, farmers in Punjab and Haryana depend on combine harvesters instead of farm workers in order to cut down the cost of cultivation during paddy harvesting.

In a news alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 10th November, 2016, it was discussed that farmers rely on combine mechanical harvesters for paddy harvesting. A paper by Ridhima Gupta shows that the use of combine-harvester scatters residue and, therefore, makes the burning of biomass almost certain. Paddy 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, which is used in parts of Punjab has made it possible now to plant wheat into the loose residue thereby saving time (which is available between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat).

The happy seeder machine plants seed into loose residue, making burning of residue unnecessary. This not only stops rice straw burning, but also helps improve soil fertility by incorporation of organic matter in the soil, finds Gupta.

The study by Ridhima Gupta, which was done for the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), finds that farmers will be slow to adopt happy seeder technology since it has no strong advantage or disadvantage from the view point of private profits.

It needs to be mentioned here that the usage of combine harvesters without straw management system leaves behind standing stubble/ stalk as well as loose straw. Recent media reports suggest that although the use of equipments like rotavator and happy seeder could prevent stubble burning, farmers seldom use them due to the high costs involved as compared to combine harvesters.

High cost of the equipment coupled with operational costs of diesel fuel, and the extra work required to prevent infection and waterlogging because of the distributed mulch, are the main challenges for the utilisation of happy seeders by farmers. Since Super-Straw Management System (S-SMS) decreases the efficiency of combine harvesters and increases their costs, the manufacturers of combine harvesters oppose mounting S-SMS on their machines.
Despite getting huge subsidies on purchase of happy seeder, super-straw management system (S-SMS) and other such equipments, only a miniscule proportion of farmers buy them. This is because the subsidized rates for such stubble management equipments is also quite high. Except during the time of paddy harvesting, such stubble management equipments are seldom used throughout the year. On top of that, there is a serious dearth of Custom Hiring Centres or village level Farm Machinery Banks in the Green Revolution states.  

What is to be done?

A number of steps can be undertaken at the policy-level to reduce air pollution in North India during October-November on account of paddy straw burning, some of which are as follows:

• Foodgrain procurement system and the public distribution system should be geared towards purchase of non-rice such as coarse cereals at remunerative prices;
• People’s food habit needs to be changed in the long-run from rice to other cereals like various kinds of millets;
• Crop diversification away from paddy-wheat crop rotation in Punjab and Haryana;
• Growing of alternative crops like ornamental plants and other income generating activities needs to be encouraged, supported and incentivised in the Green Revolution states, which is resided by large and rich farmers;
• Water-guzzling crops like sugarcane, banana, paddy etc. needs to be replaced by growing of other nutritious crops that need less water with assured prices/ procurement/ incentives;
• Warehousing, storing and processing facilities needs to be developed, which helps in crop diversification and when there is overproduction;
• More research and development needs to be done for developing crops that consumes less water, are resistant to pest attacks and their seed is available to farmers at affordable prices.


Innovative viable solution to rice residue burning in rice-wheat cropping system through concurrent use of super straw management system-fitted combines and turbo happy seeder, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), Policy Brief No. 2, October, 2017, please click here to access 

Policy Brief - The key to resolving straw burning: Farmers' expertise, Maastricht University, 1 December, 2017, please click here to read

Happy Seeder: A solution to agricultural fires in north India -Ridhima Gupta & E Somanathan, Ideas for India, 12 November, 2016, please click here to access   

Trends in rural wage rates: Whether India reached Lewis Turning Point -A Amarender Reddy (2013), International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT/ CGIAR), please click here to read
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
Management of crop residues in the context of conservation agriculture (2012), Policy Paper no. 58, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, December, please click here to access 

Which one is a better indicator for depicting the problem of joblessness -- Proportion Unemployed or Unemployment Rate? News alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 20 June, 2019, please click here to access 
Govt.'s solution to end stubble burning is too costly for farmers, Inclusive Media for Change news alert, dated 17 November, 2017, please click here to access 

To breathe fresh air, Opt for better agricultural technology, Inclusive Media for Change news alert, dated 10 November, 2016, please click here to access   

Why is Delhi's air so toxic? -Srishti Choudhary,, 3 November, 2019, please click here to access 

Crop residue burning: Why Happy Seeder isn't a happy proposition -Anju Agnihotri Chaba, The Indian Express, 31 October, 2019, please click here to read more

Punjab's paddy dilemma -Jyotika Sood, Down to Earth, 15 July, 2014, please click here to read more      

Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak


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