Air pollution has emerged as a key challenge today and in India’s north-west region reaches alarmingly high levels in certain pockets during winter. While there are numerous sources of air pollution in the region, restricted flow of pollutants in winters and burning of rice stubble across Punjab and Haryana during same time exacerbates this situation. Burning rice stubble to manage it gained currency in the last few years due to the prevalence of a rice-wheat monoculture, the mechanisation of farming and burning is viewed as a quick and cost-effective way to clear the fields for sowing the next crop.
Estimates suggest that burning one tonne of paddy straw releases 3 kg particulate matier, 60 kg CO, 1,460 kg CO2, 199 kg ash and 2 kg SO2. According to the latest scientific evidence, stubble burning leads to economic loss worth USD 1.5 billion over five years. The economic and environmental damage due to stubble burning is not lost on farmers as they bear the brunt of it with greater immediacy than many others impacted by it, as burning is detrimental to long-term soil health and agricultural productivity.
While solutions for both in-situ management (on-field recycling of straw into the soil) and ex-situ management (off-field consisting of collection/baling and further conversion to green products such as biofuels, Bio-CNG, construction material and composting, etc) are prevalent, many farmers struggle due to lack of access to affordable tools and technical know-how. From a biomass perspective, the inherent properties of rice straw from the region including low calorific value, high silica content and lack of dedicated supply chains are limiting factors.
It is imperative to address the issue of stubble burning with a comprehensive perspective, recognizing the complexities involved and keeping in mind the long-term sustainability of proposed solutions. Government, Industry, and society, especially the farmer community, need to work in tandem to implement sustainable solutions and achieve impacts that move the needle in terms of mitigating economic and environmental damage without compromising India’s food security or public health.
The adoption of the principles of a circular economy and a shift in perception of rice straw from waste to a valuable input with several industrial and agricultural applications will tilt the needle.
Leveraging In-Situ Management
In-situ management is the most cost-effective solution to manage paddy straw and taking note of the CII-NITI Aayog Task Force on Biomass Management’s recommendation, on the basis of rapid assessment and multiple rounds of stakeholder consultations, the Government of India has been dedicatedly promoting in-situ management of straw through dedicated policies, which have been subsidising farm machinery since 2018. Almost 1,97,743 crop residue management machines are now available for utilisation across Punjab and Haryana, which has led to the scaling of in-situ management across both states. However, at times, in-situ solutions can be fuel-intensive and not cost-effective, making ex-situ solutions also important to address the issue in its entirety. An estimated one-third of surplus rice straw in the region (approximately 13 million tonnes per year) would require ex-situ management with robust supply chains in place to allow for scale. Amongst ex-situ solutions, biomass co-firing was identified by CII in 2021 as the most economical solution with multiple co-benefits ranging from national energy security to climate mitigation. The Government has adopted CII’s recommendation and mandated that all Thermal Power Plants (TPP) consume at least 5 percent pellets through competitive bidding. It has even set up a dedicated mission, SAMARTH, to promote biomass co-firing in coal-based thermal power plants and accelerate co-firing.
Indian Industry Spearheading Change
Indian Industry can play a pivotal role in crop residue management and recognising this potential, the Government modified its crop residue management policy in 2023 to improve the rice straw supply chain focussing on building partnerships among farmer groups and industries. It will facilitate these joint projects with seed funds of up to 65 percent of the project cost. CII has been working on the issue of stubble burning under the umbrella of its Cleaner Air Better Life initiative through a crop residue management project, implemented on the ground by the CII Foundation. Devised a tier an in-depth study and rigorous on-ground deliberations, the project aims to create a zero-stubble burning movement by driving behavioural change and supporting farmers with machinery and technical know-how. From 19 villages in 2018, the program now covers 436 villages across the 12 most affected districts in this region.
Last season, the project successfully reduced stubble burning, with 85% of project farmers adopting sustainable agricultural practices not involving burning. The cumulative emission savings from the efforts from 2018-19 till 2022-23 amount to 7 million kg PM2.5 savings in air pollution and 3.8 lakh tonne CO2 e savings in climate impacts. As a major co-benefit, the project also led to estimated savings of 71 billion litre worth of irrigation water, due to increased water holding capacity of organic matier-rich soils in the areas with acute groundwater shortage. The project promotes climate resilience in agriculture by making crops sown using in-situ management techniques more resilient to the impacts of ongoing extreme weather events such as heatwaves, hailstorms and untimely rains.
Sustainable agriculture requires collective efforts, commitment and collaboration between Government, Industry, social development sector players and communities. This can lead to innovative solutions, especially technological advancements, that will not only support and empower farmers but also have game-changing socio-economic and environmental impacts.
This article was first published in CII Policy Watch, Focused on “Crop Stubble Management”.