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Toxic air in Delhi fueled by rice fields that India doesn’t need

Each year India’s rice farmers burn the stubble of the harvested paddy crop, contributing to the annual haze.

Bloomberg|
Updated: Nov 12, 2019, 01.09 PM IST
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ANI
Toxic air in Delhi fueled by rice fields that India doesn’t need
Farmers say they don’t have the time or money to store the straw or plow the stubble back into the ground, so they just burn it.
By Pratik Parija

Each year India’s rice farmers burn the stubble of the harvested crop, contributing to an annual haze that damages the health of those in and around the capital. Yet the country is producing more rice than it needs thanks to government subsidies.

Guaranteed prices have encouraged farmers to grow so much rice — one of the most water-intensive crops and a major source of greenhouse gases — that India has become the world’s largest exporter of the grain and government stockpiles are now more than twice the required level.

“Farmers in Punjab and Haryana need to diversify from rice to other crops to save water and the environment,” said former Agriculture Secretary Siraj Hussain. The government should help them shift to crops that use less water, like soybeans, pulses and corn, compensating them for any loss in earnings “for two or three years,” said Hussain, a visiting senior fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi.

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India exports more than 11 million tons of rice annually, and has about 25 million tons of rice and about 4 million tons of unmilled grain in buffer stocks, enough to feed the nation for more than three months. The government requirement is for 10.3 million tons in reserves on October 1.

But farmers in northwest India prefer to grow rice and wheat because the government buys the grains at guaranteed prices so it can sell the food at subsidized rates to the poor. The government expects to spend Rs 1.51 lakh crore ($21 billion) on food subsidies in 2019-20.

Farmers have been taking the blame for the capital’s terrible air quality in recent days even though vehicle and industrial emissions contribute year-round, as does road and construction dust and domestic fires lit by the poor.

“Everyone blames farmers for pollution,” said Harjinder Singh, 40, who grows rice and wheat on 4 acres he rents in the village of Sher Majra in Punjab state. “What about the factories that emit poisonous gases all year round?” he said, indicating a plant next to his field that turns plastic waste into furnace oil.

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But it’s the extra wallop from burning crop stubble that causes the annual slump in Delhi’s air quality, despite the fact that the practice is banned in the surrounding states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. In the trough-like topography of north India, the smoke lingers in the colder months.

A law enacted in 2009 bars farmers in Punjab from sowing rice until mid-June to conserve ground water, leaving them with little time to clear the fields to sow wheat before the winter. The fastest and cheapest solution is to burn the rice stubble, clearing and sanitizing the soil.

Crop burning contributed 44% on Oct. 31 to Delhi’s PM2.5 level, a measure of dangerous particles in the air. The contribution is forecast to be 25% on Tuesday, according to the government air-quality and weather forecaster.

Farmers in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh grow rice on 10.5 million hectares (26 million acres), producing about 48 million tons of straw a year of which about 39 million tons is burnt, according to a joint industry-government report.

The straw was once removed manually during the harvest and used as cattle feed or to make cardboard, but now most farmers rent a combine harvester which leaves up to 80% of the residue in the field. Farmers say they don’t have the time or money to store the straw or plow the stubble back into the ground.

“Farming is no longer profitable and the government doesn’t understand that,” said Singh, adding that farmers should get an additional Rs 200 per 100 kilograms of rice to remove and store the straw instead of burning it.

India has seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, and toxic air was responsible for one in eight deaths in 2017. The life of a child born in India today is likely to be 2.5 years shorter because of poor air quality. Record pollution last week prompted a public health emergency and schools were closed for several days.

A shift to crops such as maize, beans and lentils would reduce the burning because they are normally harvested by hand or can be gathered earlier. “If we increase our pulses production we can reduce our import and provide protein to our malnourished masses,” Hussain said.

Farmers need guaranteed purchases for corn, soybeans and lentils if they are to shift from rice, said rice and wheat farmer Raghubir Singh. He said the government would also need to compensate farmers for adverse weather that can damage other crops more easily.

Burning stubble also reduces soil quality. Razing 1 ton of rice straw loses 5.5 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.3 kilograms of phosphorous, 25 kilograms of potassium and 1.2 kilograms of sulfur, according to government data.

“We can’t afford big tractors and machines to plow stubble back into the soil,” said farmer Jujhar Singh. “We don’t want to burn the stubble, we’re forced to do it.”

Not all farms harvest rice mechanically. Growers of the more expensive and aromatic basmati rice typically harvest the grain manually and feed the straw to cattle or make it into rope or other uses.

But those who do, feel victimized for the wider air pollution problem in India.

“Why is everyone targeting us?” said Gurmeet Singh, 54, who rents 10 acres to farm. “Our fields feed people.” He said the millions of exploding firecrackers set off during the festival of Diwali on Oct. 27 were just as much to blame for the sudden increase in smoke around Delhi. “Why doesn’t the government ban firecrackers or force factories to run on natural gas?”
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