Gas chamber again? North India’s great autumn crop burn can be prevented with an economic package

Sep 25, 2017
Autumn sees a sharp deterioration in air quality in north India, as farmers set fire to their monsoon crop stubble to ready their fields for winter crop. This is illegal but remains unchecked, taking a terrible toll on people in the form of respiratory and other health problems. Late last week, Delhi high court directed state governments of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to prevent burning of crop residue which turns the air into a ‘gas chamber’. These states must use this as an opportunity to review their strategy. The crop burning phenomenon can be checked with a different approach.
The root cause of the problem is that farmers find it economical to burn their crop. For sure, it will cause them long-term problems in the form of soil damage. But the economically stressed Indian farmer has no choice. The solution, therefore, needs to be grounded in economic incentives. Farmers can be weaned away from burning crop residue if governments’ alternative offers make economic sense. Some solutions have already been put forth, but for them to have an impact they need to be part of a package backed by governments.
NTPC, India’s largest power generator, has come up with a workable economic solution. It has offered to use crop residue as input for biomass which can be used along with coal in its power plants. Central government had earlier estimated that surplus agro residues in India could generate up to 17,000 MW of electricity. Therefore, incentivising greater use of biomass through power purchase agreements is one solution. Not only will it address environmental issues, the attendant benefit is in the form of enhanced economic activity. But given varying agricultural conditions in these states, a single measure will not suffice. Farmers need to be given options.
Among the options is more suitable mechanical implements. Rotovators are one way to go. They are machines that spread the crop residue into the soil. Another mechanical option is to sell combined harvester machines with a straw management system. For sure, these solutions may need governments to initially subsidise the sale of these machines to make them more affordable. But the benefits in the form of lower healthcare costs and better air quality will more than offset the initial subsidy. The short point is that the autumn and winter haze need not be a permanent feature. All it needs is an economic solution.
Times of India, September 25, 2017

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