Every year, India’s paddy field farmers burn seven to eight million metric tonnes of crop waste. The effect of this on India is astronomical – both on the country’s wallet, and its people’s health.
Crop burning incurs a cost of almost US$30 billion every year, new research suggests. A groundbreaking study led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is the first to estimate the economic and health costs of crop residue burning (CRB) in northern India.
“October and November witness farmers burn crop residue in the open, following the harvest season – and heralding a pollution season for northern India”
The veil of smog that blankets the skies of crop-burning states of Haryana and Punjab and its neighbours is an annual occurrence. October and November witness farmers burn crop residue in the open, following the harvesting season – and heralding a pollution season for northern India. The stubble is burnt as it is a cost-free alternative to hiring workers and investing in machinery to manually dispose of the same.
This practice has sharply risen in recent years. Since 2010, researchers have observed an increase in the number of CRB fires lit. This occurs twice yearly: in April-May (Rabi) and October-November (Kharif).
CRB in the earlier months does not cause as much of an issue as it does later in the year. Hotter air during Rabi means the smoke and gases emitted from the burning crops disperse more quickly. During Kharif, the colder air and different wind patterns allow the gases to spread from the paddy fields where the crops are burnt to neighbouring states and territories.
“2017 saw a public health emergency declared in Delhi as air pollution levels skyrocketed…last year, as the crop burning season approached, Delhiites braced themselves for a similar calamity”
Delhi is perhaps the most notable casualty of this. 2017 saw a public health emergency declared in Delhi as pollution levels skyrocketed, forcing school closures and leading Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to equate the national capital with a ‘gas chamber’. Last year, as the crop burning season approached, Delhiites braced themselves for a similar calamity.
This is not to say that there are no other causes of the multiple air pollution crises dogging northern India. Industrial activity and emissions from traffic lining the capital’s congested streets are also culprits. However, CRB poses a discernible challenge owing to the sheer and unique magnitude of its health effects.
Previous research blames CRB for 66,000 pollution-related deaths in India annually. In Delhi alone, emissions of particulate matter from crop burning are more than seventeen times that of all other sources of air pollution. CRB releases five times as much sulfur dioxide and 64 times as much carbon dioxide as other sources of air pollution in the national capital.
“When it comes to alleviating the toxic effects of air pollution in India, it is clear that sustainable and responsible practices are a must across all sectors, from agriculture to heavy industry”
The new study highlights the dangers to health in districts with particularly high exposure to the fumes released by burning crops. In particular, the study notes, crop burning increases the risk of acute respiratory infection (ARI) threefold for those highly exposed to the toxic fumes from the burning fields.
When it comes to alleviating the toxic effects of air pollution in India, it is clear that sustainable and responsible practices are a must across all sectors, from agriculture to heavy industry. For this to be the case, enforcement has to be stringent – by central, state and district-level authorities alike.
India has a convincing claim to the mantle of the world’s most polluted country. Fourteen of the world’s fifteen most polluted cities are in India and its environmental health is ranked the worst of any country. With staggering impact on the health of men, women and children alike across the country, it is clear that there is an impetus upon authorities to act. That involves clear policy proposals and ensuring industries do their part for the environment – whether they are factory owners or errant farmers.
The crisis will not be simply resolved. That does not change the fact that it does have to be resolved. The study suggests, “Investments to stop crop burning and offer farmers alternative crop-residue disposal solutions to improve population-level respiratory health and yield major economic returns.” The study also found that crop-burning abatement would be highly cost-effective and, in northern India, would avert disability adjusted life years equivalent to US $152.9 billion over a 5-year period.”
The study this article reports on, “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”, can be accessed here.