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How a Potent Mix of Water Crisis, Mechanisation & Climate Change Stoke Stubble Burning & Pollution

A farmer burns paddy waste stubble in a field. (Image: Reuters)

A farmer burns paddy waste stubble in a field. (Image: Reuters)

As the capital chokes in a toxic haze that was described by the Supreme Court on Monday as “worse than the Emergency”, and politicians across parties blame each other, experts point out that the 2009 Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act changed the “timing of the burning”.

New Delhi: Behind the burning of crop waste, or stubble, that poisons Delhi’s already-polluted air, is a story of changing agricultural practices, a crippling water crisis, and unintended consequences.

As Delhi chokes in a toxic haze that was described by the Supreme Court on Monday as “worse than the Emergency”, and politicians across parties blame each other, experts point out that the 2009 Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act changed the “timing of the burning”. An official of the Punjab government told News18, “The Act was one that had to be implemented due to the water crisis the state was facing. But while it helped with its aim of preserving water, it had a series of unintended consequences and compounded some existing problems.”

A law, a labour crisis and unintended consequences

These “existing problems” and “unintended consequences” can be traced back to five decades ago, to the 1970s, with the advent of the green revolution in the plains of Haryana and Punjab. Since then, the agricultural landscape in Punjab and Haryana has remained affected by a series of changes — the increasing cultivation of paddy, a decline in groundwater levels, growing mechanisation of agriculture, migration, and, finally, the 2009 legislation.

HS Jat, principal scientist at the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI), explained that ultimately it is a question of economics. “While there was no problem with the availability of labour, there was no stubble burning. Harvesting was done by hand.” Shiv Kumar Lohan, assistant research engineer at Punjab Agricultural University, added that initially, the “harvest would be cut by hand” and would be “cut right at the root”.

This changed in the 1990s, with Punjab facing a labour shortage. There were new jobs in a newly liberalised economy. “Given that wages were low and the job was physically laborious, most of the labour was brought in from eastern India,” said Jat, and noted that the period coincided with the introduction of combine harvesting. “But even then, harvesting would be done by hand. When the NREGA scheme came into effect, migration from regions like Bihar decreased,” he added.

The mission statement of the 2005 scheme was to “enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work”.

More “unintended consequences”, the Punjab government official admitted. “There was a noticeable shift after the 2005 NREGA scheme,” he explained Workers now had work in their home states. They didn't need to move far, and wide and that meant that farmers in Punjab had no option but to adopt the combine harvesters.”

Add to this another crucial factor. Farmers get only a small window of about 15 days between crops. “If the sowing is delayed, then the yield is decreased by about 20-25 per cent,” added Jat. He explained that the Pusa Basmati 1509 variety of rice was being grown for the past five-six years, since it “matures early, ripening in 120 days and its height is short. But a temperature change of just two-four degrees (because of climate change) can result in it taking 160 days in maturing.”

The result: a single hectare of land that was cultivated by 250 people, is now being done by a single machine. Multiply that 31,267 times. That's the number of fires that have been recorded in Punjab alone since September 23, as per data maintained by the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre.

Jat went on to break down the farmers’ problem of dealing with the stubble amid a labour shortage and warming temperatures due to climate change, to its most basic: “(To manage) 25 million tonnes of stubble in a fortnight versus a ‘technology’ that can be produced for one rupee, the cost of a matchbox.”

The situation is identical in Haryana. In the district of Karnal alone, a total of at least 120 FIRs have been lodged against farmers. Deputy director (agriculture) Aditya Dabas said, “The problem is that 10-15 years ago, the harvesting was manually done. It would take 2 days to harvest a field and there was no requirement of any fire. Now, the machines are doing it...fast...and they leave behind stubble."

Rice, water and climate change

Rice was introduced in 1970, after the green revolution, with its main target areas being the states of Punjab, Haryana and western parts of Uttar Pradesh. Since then the cultivation of the crop has spread to 450 million hectares, said Jat.

The 2009 Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act was a reflection of the innate problems that the sole cultivation of rice has. Simply put, rice uses up groundwater like few other crops do.

The Act, which barred nursery sowing and transplanting of paddy before May 15 and June 15 in a bid to ensure that rainwater and groundwater are utilised for production, shifted the harvest closer to the winter. “This meant that the stubble fires were happening later in the year, when the air was colder and had more moisture. The result: more pollution,” an official at the Met department said.

But there are larger concerns about the future of rice and food security with the mounting threats of climate change. Consider this: each degree Celsius increase in global temperatures would, on average, reduce the global yield of rice by 3.2 per cent, found a study, published by American scientific journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS) in 2017. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) underscored that the number of malnourished people in drought-sensitive countries, like India, had increased by 45 per cent in the last seven years, in a report released this year.

In August, during the launch of a special report on climate change and land by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Geneva, experts warned of the inevitability of yields declining especially in the tropics, along with inflation and reduced nutrient supply impacting nutrition. As Hans-Otto Pörtner, a working group co-chair of the IPCC put it, there was “no possibility for anybody to say, ‘Oh, climate change is happening and we (will) just adapt to it.’ “

The 2009 law had only stemmed water depletion -- not stopped it. Nowhere is this more obvious than Haryana. Today, the state, in spite of occupying just 1.5 per cent of India’s total landmass accounts for 15 per cent of its total agricultural produce, with 96 per cent of the state’s arable land under cultivation.

A 2017 report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), India’s apex water monitoring agency, found that 78 out of 128 blocks across 22 districts in Haryana were ‘over-exploited’ or ‘dark zones’ – where pumping of groundwater exceeds 100 per cent. Since 2013, when the survey was last conducted, these ‘dark zones’ have increased by a figure of 12. This misuse of groundwater, scientists and experts point out, can primarily be attributed to the growth of paddy farming in the state — an increase of seven times in just 50 years. The state also has the dubious distinction of having the least forest cover in the country of just 3.59 per cent, as per the Forest Survey of India 2018.

“The groundwater depletion is increasing every year since rice needs at least 150 centimetres of water,” added Jat. Rainfall, he explained, contributed to less than half of this on average, so the rest was dependent on rainwater and the deficit is increasing every year. “Heavy rainfall (is happening) in a short period, so the water is being drained,” he said.

“So many people have called for crop diversification. Despite the productivity of rice and wheat being the same, farmers have been unable to adopt maize because here the government gives assured procurement for rice, although minimum support price is there for rice and wheat,” Jat said. “So there should be an assured procurement of maize as well, which will solve the issue.”