Stubble Burning: A Historical Environmental Issue.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Stubble is the left over after harvesting any grain or hay crop. Stubble Burning is the elimination of such crop residue by the usage of fire. In Indian context, stubble burning coming into attention every year in the months of October and November is because in northern states, especially Punjab, Haryana (both of which include parts of the National Capital Region) and Uttar Pradesh, farmers burn stubbles of mainly rice and wheat harvest as the time between harvesting these crops and sowing the crops for the next season is very less. The primary implication of this as such, becomes the effect it levies a boost to the already worsening air pollution situation of the Capital and the NCR. Even when the region’s pollution is mostly contributed by industrial and infrastructural activities throughout the year, in the NCR, Stubble Burning is still one of the top 5 contributors of PM2.5 & PM10 after being a seasonal activity[1] and makes up about  25 to 30% of the total air pollution when the burning of stubble hits peak.

Why Stubble Burning?

There are a number of reasons why farmers in India find themselves bound to this practice accounting for the yearly occurring of the same. To reiterate the primary reason, farmers would face heavy losses because of the delay in planting the winter crops and for that reason they find burning the straw of the previous harvest away as the most convenient method of avoiding such losses. The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act and Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act restrict the sowing of rice in before mid-June in the states of Punjab and Haryana in order to conserve groundwater by preventing the usage of the same for irrigation and having the farmers rely on the monsoon season. This eventually shortens the window to sow new crops leading to Stubble Burning being an easy way to get rid of the residue.

Furthermore, farmers in India find alternatives of fast elimination of stubble expensive so there’s also an element of financial question which accounts for an environmental bottleneck. The amount of straw also makes it difficult for the farmers to work into the soil in a short period. Stubble burning does add its own fair share of pollution in the region, however, blaming the farmers for such pollution does not take into the account factors such as less awareness, financial factors and the most important of them all that farmers find themselves stuck in a predicament where they are left with no other choice.

Problems caused by agricultural burning:

Despite stubble burning being criminalized under the The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, there is an apparent lack of system machinery to prevent Stubble Burning. 80% of the millions of tonnes of stubble is burnt every year[2], causing a strong impetus to the air pollution in the entire northern India.

It further causes a substantial loss in the fertility of the soil, in a way acting counter-productive to the short term (and usually a necessary evil) solution. According to a science journal, “the burning of paddy straw leads to loss of precious nutrients as nearly 25% nitrogen and phosphorus, 50% sulphur and 75% of potassium uptake from soil are retained in the crop residues. It has been estimated that burning of 1 tonne of paddy straw accounts for loss of 5.5 kg nitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphorus, 25 kg potassium and 1.2 kg sulphur, besides organic carbon”[3]. The heat penetrates the soil, raising the temperature from normal to high and considerably causing harm to its fertility. A far reaching consequence of stubble burning is the melting of Himalayan glaciers.

According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, the particulate matter and toxic gases largely worsen respiratory problems so in the current predicament of COVID-19, it is a fair apprehension that such pollutants can cause more harm to the ongoing situat

A State Responsibility:

As begins the season where stubble burning starts causing environmental harm, so does the time of political whataboutery. The most recent example would be the U.S. President Trump calling India’s air “filthy” and the opposition showed their disapproval at his denigration of the air.

Punjab Chief Minister expresses a major concern for combating this problem as the State’s inability of financing biomass power plants as the debt burden of the State comes closer to 2.5 lakh crores. He further demanded 1000 INR compensation per tonne paddy straw from the centre. The Delhi Government, on the other hand, has put in use of the pusa bio-decomposer in use this year to curb stubble burning, which decomposes the paddy straw into compost. The decomposer uses 200 litres of water per acre and is currently in a pilot implementation in an area estimated between 700 and 800 hectare. Punjab and Haryana Governments have also taken extensive steps to penalize stubble burning this year.  

Supreme Court recently ordered a committee headed by Former Supreme Court Judge Justice Madan B. Lokur to oversee and prevent stubble burning with the help of the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority and other relevant authorities. There are a lot of expectations from the committee which will submitting its reports every fortnight.

In terms of finding a solution, there are a lot of ideas with relatively less implementation. In any case, the question of environmental importance gets overshadowed infront of political question of responsibility. The urgency of the situation surpasses all the limiting aspects for which there needs to be a faster and a more collaborative way of tackling the same. The steps taken by the both the centre and the state maybe adequate individually but an end to this debacle occurring for the 4th year in a row needs flawless centre-state coordination to be tackled with.

-Osho Dubey

Writer, Bharat Bhagya Vidhata.

[1] Source Apportionment of PM2.5 & PM10 of Delhi NCR for Identification of Major Sources, The Energy and Resources Institute and The Automotive Research Association of India, Report No. ARAI/16-17/DHI-SA-NCR/Final Report August 2018.

[2] “Stubble burning: A problem for the environment, agriculture and humans”, DownToEarth,

[3] Ruby Sidhu Et al., “Impact of Stubble Burning on Ambient Air Quality”, International Journal of Mechanical And Production Engineering, Volume- 3, Issue-10, Oct.-2015.

Leave a Reply