STRAW IN THE WIND

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

WHAT DOES THE de­ci­sion to save ground­wa­ter in Pun­jab or Haryana have to do with air pol­lu­tion in Delhi? Plenty.We need to know this be­cause many ac­tions have un­in­tended and deadly con­se­quences. Ground­wa­ter ex­trac­tion for rice cul­ti­va­tion has cre­ated a big prob­lem for Pun­jab. Over time, wa­ter lev­els have dropped pre­cip­i­tously in the state.To deal with this it en­acted the Pun­jab Preser­va­tion of Sub-Soil Wa­ter Act, 2009, which pro­hibits farm­ers from trans­plant­ing rice in fields be­fore June 10 of each year, or close to the on­set of the mon­soons. Haryana al­ready had this law. Farm­ers who defy the law are fined ` 10,000 per hectare per month. The two states are al­ready record­ing im­prove­ment in their wa­ter ta­ble.

The down­side is that the de­lay in plant­ing rice re­sults in de­layed har­vest, which leaves the farmer with lit­tle time to pre­pare the field for the next wheat crop.

This is not all. Over the years, farm­ing has be­come mech­a­nised. To­day, com­bine har­vesters are used to cut paddy. This leaves straw and stub­ble on the ground. With the plant­ing pe­riod be­tween crops short­ened, farm­ers need their fields quickly, so they burn the straw in the field.

Satel­lite images of the pe­riod are stark: red dots of fire are seen across the plains of Pun­jab and Haryana. A study by the Haryana Space Ap­pli­ca­tion Cen­tre, com­mis­sioned by the state pol­lu­tion con­trol board, found that be­tween Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber 2013 over 20 per cent of the state’s paddy area—some 200,000 ha—was burnt.Now when the wind blows, the smoke, full of par­ti­cles and other tox­ins, reaches the al­ready pol­luted air­shed of Delhi and its vicin­ity. Peo­ple choke.

We have thus set into mo­tion a spi­ral of events that will have ma­jor health im­pacts. On the one hand, are the sur­vival emis­sions of the paddy-wheat farm­ers and on the other hand, luxury emis­sions of the own­ers of pri­vate cars and diesel suvs. All add to pol­lu­tion. The air­shed is not sep­a­rated by class or re­gion.

So what can be done? It is im­por­tant to note that the two farm­ing states are do­ing their bit to con­trol this fire. Haryana banned burning of rice straw a few years ago and has made it a cog­niz­able of­fence un­der the Air Act. In 2014, Pun­jab fol­lowed suit. This is broad­cast through mass me­dia and in both states farm­ers have even been pros­e­cuted for set­ting fire to their fields. This is more than what hap­pens to pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries or diesel car own­ers.

The real so­lu­tion, how­ever, lies in find­ing vi­able al­ter­na­tives to the use of straw. This is where big op­por­tu­ni­ties lie.The fact is that rice straw is a re­source; it can be used to gen­er­ate re­new­able en­ergy and, thus, re­duce de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els. Ad­di­tion­ally, if straw is ploughed back into the soil, it will se­quester or­ganic car­bon con­tent in the soil, in­creas­ing its fer­til­ity and also stor­ing car­bon. More im­por­tantly, not burning straw will re­duce black car­bon emis­sions, which is a short-lived cli­mate pol­lu­tant. Un­like car­bon diox­ide, black car­bon does not have a long life in the at­mos­phere, but it is a po­tent green­house gas.Not re­leas­ing black car­bon into the at­mos­phere will ,there­fore, bring quick cli­mate benefits. Rice farm­ers in Pun­jab and Haryana can be big play­ers in the cli­mate change story.

Al­ter­na­tives ex­ist and are be­ing tried. Pun­jab, for in­stance, pro­vides a higher tar­iff for en­ergy gen­er­ated from rice straw.As a re­sult, it has set up some 200 MW of power plants that use straw.The big ob­sta­cle is to bale the rice straw to trans­port it to power plants. Cur­rently, the state is pro­vid­ing a sub­sidy to farm­ers to pro­cure balers to com­press the residue but more sup­port is re­quired.

Then there is farm equip­ment that can till the rice straw into the soil while si­mul­ta­ne­ously sow­ing wheat seeds. The Haryana and Pun­jab gov­ern­ments are pro­vid­ing sub­sidy on this equip­ment, but it is also in­suf­fi­cient. As a re­sult, farm­ers con­tinue to burn straw, pol­lute the air and dam­age health.

It is time we took re­spon­si­bil­ity for th­ese un­in­tended con­se­quences. One way would be to pay the rice farm­ers of Haryana and Pun­jab for pro­vid­ing the eco­log­i­cal and cli­mate ser­vice of rice straw re­use. The pay­ment should come partly from the peo­ple of Delhi and other cities who want clean air.The rest should come from car­bon cap­ture ser­vice. It would re­quire the world to re­think the in­fa­mous car­bon cred­its scheme so that for once it is the farm­ers and the poor who ben­e­fit.This way we all can win.

TARIQUE AZIZ

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