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The Financial Burden of Air Pollution: Crop Residue Burning In India Costs India $30bn Annually

The economic cost of exposure to air pollution from crop residual burning stands at USD 30 billion or nearly Rs 2 lakh crore annually for the three north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi alone.

Swati Dey | News18.com

Updated:March 5, 2019, 9:19 AM IST
The Financial Burden of Air Pollution: Crop Residue Burning In India Costs India $30bn Annually
Commuters make their way through smoke caused by the burning of crop stubble on the outskirts of Amritsar, (PTI )

Air pollution due to crop residue burning (CRB) is a leading risk factor of acute respiratory infections (ARI), especially among children less than five years of age, says a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and partner institutes. The report further adds that ARI leads to an estimated economic loss of USD 30 billion annually.

The study named, “Risk of acute respiratory infection from crop burning in India: estimating disease burden and economic welfare from satellite and national health survey data for 250,000 persons” concludes that those living in districts with air pollution from intense CRB in northern India are prone to the ARIs.

Air pollution in the national capital is particularly extreme during the winter months. Delhi was the most polluted large city in the world in 2016, with an average annual PM2.5 of 122 µgm-3 (micrograms per cubic meter)—12 times the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended target of 10 µgm–3.

“Among other factors, smoke from the burning of agricultural crop residue by farmers in Haryana and Punjab especially contributes to Delhi’s poor air, increasing the risk of ARI three-fold for those living in districts with intense crop burning,” stated IFPRI research fellow and co-author of the study, Samuel Scott.

The study adds, the burden of outdoor air pollution remains high in the two states too. In Punjab alone, an estimated 44–51 million metric tonnes of residue are burnt each year, with rice being the primary source. The contribution of CRB in north-western India to air pollution in the national capital estimated upto 78% of PM2.5 enhancements.

The study analysed health data from over 250,000 individuals of all ages residing in rural and urban areas in India. It used NASA satellite data on fire activity to estimate the health impact of living in areas with intense crop burning by comparing them with areas not affected by CRB. Health was measured by the frequency of reported hospital visits for ARI symptoms.

The researchers observed that respiratory health worsened with increasing crop burning in Haryana.

“[The] study shows that it is not only the residents of Delhi, but also the [residents] of rural Haryana who are the first victims of crop residue burning. Much of the public discussion on ill-effects of crop residue burning ignores this immediately affected vulnerable population,” said another co-author Avinash Kishore.

Health Burden

As per a 2017 report, 'India: Health of the Nation’s States', “air pollution was the second leading risk factor in India… The exposure value of outdoor air pollution increased by 17% in India from 1990 to 2016.” While the report takes into account the household air pollution too for the country, it shows how Delhi is surrounded by states with highest ambient PM pollution: Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan.

The CRB results in an unrecoverable decrease in pulmonary function among children aged 10–13 years. It was also responsible for an estimated 66,200 deaths in 2015 in India. A WHO report estimates the deaths due to Ambient Air Pollution to be over 10 lakh in 2016.

Financial Burden

The study estimated the economic cost of exposure to air pollution from CRB at USD 30 billion or nearly Rs 2 lakh crore annually for the three north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Kishore explained to News18.com that the cost was calculated by multiplying the percentage of individuals impacted by the diseases caused by CRB with the population of the states (Delhi, Haryana and Punjab) and the per capita income of each individual.

“Severe air pollution during winter months in northern India has led to a public health emergency. Crop burning will increase healthcare costs over time if immediate steps are not taken to reverse the situation. The negative health effects of crop burning will also lower the productivity of residents and may lead to long-term adverse impacts on the economy and health,” stated co-author Suman Chakrabarti.

The study has also examined other factors of air pollution and poor respiratory health such as motor vehicle density and firecracker burning during Diwali – the latter usually coincides with CRB time. The economic losses owing to exposure to air pollution from firecracker burning are estimated to be around USD 7 billion or nearly Rs 50 thousand crore a year. In five years, the economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be USD 190 billion, or nearly 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP, the report says.

Eliminating crop burning will not only improve human health but will also contribute to soil and plant biodiversity and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also avert 14.9 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost per year, valued at USD 152.9 billion over five years, suggests the study co-authored by Scott and Kishore of IFPRI, Devesh Roy of CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, Chakrabarti from University of Washington and Md. Tajuddin Khan from Oklahoma State University. It will be published in an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The report flags that despite a ban by the National Green Tribunal, agricultural crop residue burning continue to take place “due to weak enforcement of the ban, political economy issues and lack of alternatives to burning among poor farmers”.

“Programmes and policies must simultaneously address indoor and outdoor pollution through a possible combination of bans and agricultural subsidies. Other important interventions for improving respiratory health are increasing household access to clean cooking fuels, electricity, and improved drainage systems,” Kishore stated.

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| Edited by: Aditya Sharma
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