Improving Crop Residue Management across north-west India to combat deadly air pollution

By Anushree Bhattacharjee, IUCN CEM Young Professional.

The Indian capital city of Delhi has unfortunately received negative media attention recently as having one of the worst air pollution levels across the world, especially during the winter months. Although some studies have attributed this to internal sources such as vehicular emissions, industrial pollutions, construction dust, crop residue burning in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have received the lion’s share of the blame from the media. Crop residue burning not only causes air pollution, but it also negatively affects the soil health. The Government of India has been attempting to ban this practice, albeit with limited success, as the short duration between paddy harvesting and wheat sowing leaves farmers with little options for sustainably managing the paddy crop residue.

In 2018, the Government of India launched a two-year Central Sector Scheme for promoting in situ Crop Residue Management (CRM) in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi NCR, with a total financial outlay of INR 1151.80 Crores. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the largest conservation non-profit in the world, launched a project in 2019 to promote sustainable in situ CRM in the states of Punjab and Haryana to complement the efforts of the government. In January 2020, I led a study commissioned by TNC to map and assess the various policy actions and programmes on crop residue burning and its management, focusing specifically on in situ CRM. The study highlighted the past and existing interventions, identified lessons learnt, and made recommendations for designing TNC’s future strategies.

The study found that while ex-situ management of crop residue is being promoted across the two states, especially for setting up biofuel industries, in situ CRM i.e. incorporation of the stubble into the agricultural field itself is the most sustainable solution. The Happy Seeder, a machine that allows direct seeding of wheat into standing paddy stubble was found to have enormous potential, in combination with a Super Straw Management System (Super SMS), that cuts the standing stubble into small pieces and spreads it evenly on the field. The study found that the number of Happy Seeders available across Punjab and Haryana was approximately half the number that is required for the optimal management of the paddy straw produced in the two states. However, even the existing machines were not being used at their full potential. Custom Hiring Centres set up under the scheme to provide easy access of farm machinery on rent to small-scale farmers had also not been popular. Farmers required increased awareness, training, and handholding to make the permanent switch to in situ CRM. It also required a procurement policy and minimum support price guarantee from the government to move the farmers away from the problematic paddy-wheat cycle. It required continued policy and technical support from both the central and state governments, along with support from NGOs and private sector to make the region ‘zero burn’. The study report has recommended a suite of solutions that need the convergent action of all stakeholders to be successful.

Ms Anushree Bhattacharjee currently Chevening Research, Science, and Innovation Leadership Fellow at the University of Oxford.

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