The >massive pollution cloud enveloping northern India every year is a good example of the disconnect between official policy and ground realities. It has been known for long that burning of agricultural waste in the northern States significantly contributes to the poor air quality in large parts of the Indo-Gangetic Basin, with local and cascading impacts felt from Punjab all the way to West Bengal. Harmful fine particulate matter measuring 2.5 mm in diameter (PM2.5) is among the pollutants released. Punjab responded to the issue with a prohibition on the burning of paddy straw, and the launch of initiatives aimed at better utilisation of biomass, including as a fuel to produce power. Yet, there is no mission mode approach to the annual crisis. The efforts do not match the scale of agricultural residues produced, for one, and fail to address farmers’ anxiety to remove the surplus from the fields quickly to make way for the next crop. The national production of crop waste is of the order of 500 million tonnes a year, with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and West Bengal topping the list. Again, 80 per cent of straw from paddy is burnt in some States, impacting air quality and depriving croplands of nutrients.
It is an irony that the >national capital and several other cities suffer crippling pollution in the post-monsoon and winter months partly due to biomass burning, when demand for fodder is rising and the surplus material could be used productively. Pilot projects to produce power using biomass demonstrated in Rajasthan, and mechanised composting and biogas production units of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute could be scaled up, and farmers given liberal support to deploy such solutions. Given the twin benefits of pollution abatement and better productivity, conservation agriculture needs to be popularised. This would encourage farmers to use newer low-till seeding technologies that allow much of the crop residues to remain on site, and curb the release of a variety of pollutants. Burning residues add greenhouse gases that cause global warming, besides pollutants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide that severely affect human health. Sustained work is called for, given that higher agricultural productivity to meet food needs is inevitable, with a cascading increase in biomass volumes. The challenge is to identify measures to utilise it. By one estimate, if India can reach its own air quality standards for fine particulate matter from all sources, annual premature deaths can be cut by almost 10 per cent. A programme to cut pollution from waste-burning would be a good start.