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Home > 2024 > Stubble Burning: Climate Concerns and Policy Paths | S N Tripathy

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 5 February 3, 2024

Stubble Burning: Climate Concerns and Policy Paths | S N Tripathy

Saturday 3 February 2024, by S N Tripathy


There has been a growing consensus within society that a formidable sustainability challenge with potentially catastrophic consequences is being confronted (Kiron et al., 2012; World Watch Institute, 2013). Both human societies and natural ecosystems are grappling with far-reaching, systemic predicaments, including climate change, species extinction, deforestation, and desertification. Human activities are intensifying the impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems on a global scale. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1) elucidates that climate change pertains to alterations in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, attributable to human activities, which go beyond the natural climate fluctuations observed over comparable periods.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2) defines climate change as modifications in the climatic conditions that manifest through alterations in the average and the variability of climatic attributes, persisting over prolonged periods, often spanning decades or more. The IPCC’s concept of vulnerability underscores the potential for climate change to inflict harm or detriment upon a system. This susceptibility is contingent upon the system’s responsiveness to change and its capacity to adapt to novel climatic circumstances (3).
Burning of paddy stubbles:
The recent admonition by the Supreme Court regarding stubble burning has brought to light pressing concerns about paddy cultivation in Punjab. This underscores the need for farmers to explore alternative crops to address the issue effectively. The Court’s call for a meeting with farmer groups to find sustainable solutions is a positive step, emphasising the importance of collaboration between central and state governments in resolving this critical problem.
The escalating frequency of extreme climatic events, including intensified tropical cyclones, storm surges, and heavy rainfall, is attributed to climate change. This phenomenon disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and exacerbates severe droughts, water scarcity, and erratic weather patterns worldwide. As documented by the IPCC, the extensive and severe impacts of climate change present undeniable evidence that human activities, primarily fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, are driving global warming beyond natural background levels. This trajectory has far-reaching consequences for global ecosystems and human progress (Tripathy, 2019 a, p.65). The increasingly evident consequences of climate change underscore the urgent need for sustainable practices and decisive actions to mitigate further climatic disruptions.
In India, approximately 2.5 million farmers residing in the Indo-Gangetic plains cultivate two crops annually: rice and wheat. The rice is strategically sown to coincide with the monsoon rains, relying on this water source. The fields are cleared for wheat planting after a brief span of 10 to 20 days. Burning has emerged as a convenient solution to dispose of the substantial 23 million metric tons of straw and grass residue left behind by rice cultivation. However, this practice of stubble burning, prevalent in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, has been identified as a significant contributor to the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) during October and November(4). This deterioration is exacerbated by local sources of pollution such as industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, road and soil dust, construction and demolition activities, and unfavourable meteorological conditions in early winter (GoI, 2019).
Farmers acknowledge that setting crop fields on fire not only negatively impacts the health of their families but also adversely affects soil microbial composition and the environment. Due to economic considerations, managing paddy stubble is often impractical. Once the rice is harvested and the grains transported to the markets, there remains a short two- to three-week timeframe to clear the fields for the following wheat or potato sowing. This adds to the farmer’s expenses, regardless of whether straw management machinery is employed. However, the additional financial burden incurred by the farmers has yet to be widely recognised. Given the already meagre farm incomes and the prevailing agricultural crisis, burning harvested fields is the most cost-effective and feasible clearance method.
While burning paddy stubble is officially recognised as an offence, acknowledging the ineffectiveness of coercive measures against farmers and understanding their limited options, the Chief Minister of Punjab appealed to the Prime Minister. The request was for an incentive of Rs.100 per quintal (approximately Rs.2,500 per acre) to be provided to farmers. This subsidy aims to offset farmers’ extra costs to manage paddy stubble without burning. In 2017, the Government of Punjab appealed for an economic stimulus package of Rs.2,000 crore to address this pressing issue (Government of Punjab, 2017).
Apart from the climate risks triggered by stubble burning, farmers are confronted with various additional climate-related hazards, including droughts, moderate floods, cyclones, pest infestations, and crop diseases. The detrimental effects of agricultural biomass residue or stubble burning extend beyond altering soil organic carbon levels; they also generate copious amounts of hazardous smoke, contributing to local air pollution. The ramifications of climate change have intensified, leading to increased disruption of ecosystem services such as water availability, soil fertility, nutrients, and biodiversity, significantly impacting marginalised communities who bear a disproportionate burden of these changes.
The way forward:
The ban on stubble burning after paddy harvesting has not yielded the desired results, especially in states like Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Though implemented, the subsidy scheme for stubble residual machines still needs to be affordable for many small and medium-sized farmers. The National Green Tribunal’s ban in 2015, accompanied by fines for violators, has not successfully deterred the practice.
The time-sensitive nature of the issue is exacerbated by the narrow gap between paddy harvest and wheat sowing in Punjab and Haryana. Farmers, facing a 10-15-day window, resort to burning stubble to clear fields quickly. The use of bio-decomposers, such as the ’PUSA’ spray promoted by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), has shown promise in theory but has not produced favourable results in Punjab’s trials due to the limited timeframe for sowing wheat after the paddy harvest.
Tackling the uncertainties brought about by erratic weather conditions necessitates the adoption of suitable cropping patterns and production methods. Integrating livestock and horticulture into agriculture, diversifying income sources, and fostering on-farm and off-farm employment opportunities are essential for sustaining livelihoods. Efficient utilisation of available natural resources like soil and water, along with promoting biomass generation, is crucial.
Acknowledging that mitigating stubble-burning requires a practical and holistic approach is crucial. While punitive measures, such as filing over 250 FIRs against Punjab farmers, may seem like a stringent response, they do not offer a wise solution. Despite years of awareness campaigns and substantial subsidies for straw management machines, stubble burning persists. Farmers are seeking support for managing crop residue rather than facing punitive actions.
In the long run, transitioning from long-duration paddy varieties to shorter-duration ones like PUSA Basmati-1509 and PR-126 can help reduce stubble burning. Harvesting these varieties in the third week of September provides ample time for paddy stubble to decompose, eliminating the need for burning.
Organising farmers into institutions enables better planning, resource access, and support, enhancing their control over production and value chain progression. Establishing livelihood security systems equips communities to cope with natural disasters like droughts, floods, and climate uncertainties, promoting resilience (Tripathy, 2019 b, p.70).
With an increasing tendency toward hazardous practices like paddy straw burning, it is imperative to raise awareness among farmers about its harmful effects. Empowering farmers with knowledge about the value-addition potential of paddy straw, a substantial residue in paddy cultivation, is crucial. Tackling the issue of paddy straw burning requires looking beyond local boundaries and learning from global experiences. India can draw insights from countries where bans on crop residue burning failed to dissuade farmers. Given the existing animosity among paddy cultivators, relying solely on government initiatives may prove ineffective. Comprehensive solutions must go beyond technical and legal interventions.
The sluggish progress in mitigating stubble burning necessitates a practical and commercially viable model that can bring about tangible changes in the environment and farmers’ practices. Encouragingly, some private firms in Punjab have taken the lead by purchasing stubble from farmers and utilising it to produce gas and other by-products in biogas plants.
Minimising the costs associated with alternative disposal methods is crucial to dissuade farmers from the age-old practice of stubble burning. Acquiring inspiration from Egypt, where the government incentivised traders to purchase straw from farmers, India can explore various options, including using stubble for animal feed, natural fertiliser, bioenergy generation, and substrate for mushroom cultivation.
Farmers face challenges in adopting alternative stubble management methods due to additional expenses, ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 per acre. The proposed incentives of Rs 2500 per acre are currently on hold. However, ignoring the issue is not a solution. Providing free reaper binders and paddy straw choppers at their farm gates can be instrumental in supporting farmers.
Bioethanol, derived from carbohydrate-rich crops such as sugarcane corn or non-food sources like cellulosic biomass, is a viable alternative to petroleum fuels. Biofuels like bioethanol offer environmental and economic advantages, replacing petroleum consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Bioethanol blended with gasoline significantly curbs petroleum usage and emissions. Bioethanol production from resources like sugar cane, switchgrass, and agricultural waste has evident benefits in reducing emissions and improving air quality. While all fuel combustion emits pollutants, bioethanol burning, especially from bio sources, emits fewer harmful emissions than gasoline or coal. Ethanol, reducing greenhouse emissions by up to 46 per cent compared to gasoline, is environmentally beneficial, and bioethanol’s cleaner production process further minimises negative impacts (4).
The state government can play a crucial role by facilitating stubble procurement and paddy grain and offering free baler services to prepare farms for wheat sowing after paddy harvesting. The procured stubble can be sold to biomass-based power plants, paper mills, and cardboard factories.
Providing farmers with the necessary assistance and equipment encourages them to abandon stubble burning. Education on the detrimental effects of this practice on soil nutrients and a systems approach to manage disease, pest, and weed pressure are imperative.
(The author is a Former Professor of Economics, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. Pune)
1)The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty adopted on 9 May 1992 and opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992. It then entered into force on 21 March 1994, after enough countries had ratified it.
2)IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.
3) IPCC, (1995): Contributions of working group II to the IPCC second assessment report, IPCC-XI/Doc. 4, IPCC, Geneva.
4)NCR comprises of mainly the cities like Delhi, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Meerut, Gurugram, Noida, Bulandshahr, Karnal and Panipat
5) U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019): Biofuels explained, October.
23, Washington, DC
Government of India (2019): Air Pollution due to Stubble burning, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change, Rajya Sabha, Unstarred question no. 835
Government of Punjab (2017): Captain Amarinder Writes to PM for Bonus on Paddy to Check Stubble Burning, 6 July,
Kiron, David, Nina Kruschwitz, and Knut Haanaes (2012): Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point. MIT Sloan Management Review 53, 2, 69-74
Tripathy, S.N (2019 a): Natural Resource Management for Environmental Sustainability, in Mishra P K and Verma J K edited, “Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management issues and challenges”, Daya Publishing House, New Delhi
Tripathy, S.N (2019 b): Climate Change and its impact on Indian Agriculture, in Prashant Khandari, M C Sati, and P S Rana edited, “Agricultural Transformation and Rural Development in India: Issues, Challenges and Possibilities”, Published by M/S Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh, Dehra Dun
World watch Institute (2013): State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington D.C: Island Press

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