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Solutions to the problem of pollution in Delhi

  • Category
    Ecology and Environment
  • Published
    19th Nov, 2019

Supreme Court came down heavily on the Chief Secretaries of four states—Punjab, Haryana, UP, and Delhi—saying that they have failed to give Delhi residents clean air to breathe. But the problem of pollution in Delhi has deeper roots, and must be assessed in order to achieve workable solutions.


Supreme Court came down heavily on the Chief Secretaries of four states—Punjab, Haryana, UP, and Delhi—saying that they have failed to give Delhi residents clean air to breathe. But the problem of pollution in Delhi has deeper roots, and must be assessed in order to achieve workable solutions.


  • Air Quality Index (AQI) touched emergency levels in Delhi when it crossed the ‘severe’ level benchmark of AQI 500.
  • Air quality in Delhi remains poor throughout the year for various reasons:
    • Rapid loss of green cover
    • Construction of homes and infrastructure projects
    • Vehicular pollution
    • Industrial pollution.
  • But for a few weeks every November, the situation gets worse due to crop residue burning (CRB) by farmers in Punjab and Haryana, which causes a heavy smog to settle over Delhi.
  • The smog worsens when the heavy smoke from crop burning combines with vehicle and industrial emissions at a time of year when wind speed drops
  • Fireworks set off to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali exacerbate the problem.
  • Issue of CRB: Farmers in Punjab and Haryana mainly plant rice for the kharif season, and wheat for the rabi season. Farmers have to harvest rice before they plant wheat for the next season. Harvesting rice using current method (harvest combines) leave rice straw covered all over the fields. The rice straws clogs the seeder machines that plant the next crop i.e. wheat. And because farmers do not value the rice straw as animal-feed (due to lack of essential nutrient) or for non-feed use, they dispose of the residue by burning it. Because of its bulky nature, it is also not economical to dispose crop residue away from its generating site.
  • Burning residue in open has very serious impact on diversity of soil flora and fauna, environment and human health; it even has power to change the monsoon pattern of the country.
  • Although the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned CRB, the decree rarely gets reinforced.


What has the government done to solve the issue, and why has it not worked?

  • Command-and-control: In Punjab, there is a high monetary penalty for farmers who burn crop stubble, but it is rarely enforced, partly due to limited state capacity. Though the government claims to be vigilant, less than 10% of CRB cases are penalized. The usual command-and-control solution of banning stubble burning has not worked mainly because farmers don’t know of any cost-effective alternative, and they are politically too powerful to be forced to do something that would reduce their incomes from farming.
  • Alternative machines: Machines like Chopper’, Happy-Seeders, Super Straw Management System (Super-SMS) and Rotavator have been presented to the farmers as alternatives to the currently used ‘Harvest Combines’. In fact, in 2018 the Punjab government compulsorily mandated the attachment of super-SMS to harvest combines. But opting for these machines is not necessarily cost-efficient, despite subsidization. Rising cost of diesel, which is widely used in tractors and farm equipment, has also increased costs. Apart from the issue of cost, the effectiveness of alternate machines made available to farmers is also For example;
    • Happy Seeder can plant wheat seeds without getting clogged by the rice straw. It deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch. But since this machine just sows wheat without cutting paddy straw, it invites rats and termite to the field.
    • Rotavator has rotating blades that chop the straw into small pieces and then it spreads it inside the soil. But there is only a small window before which wheat seeds are sown, and this is not enough time for the straw to decompose.
    • Super-SMS is attached to self-propelled harvest combines, which cut paddy straw into small pieces and spread same. But loss in paddy has been noted due to its use as also spreads paddy along with the straw.
  • Odd and Even scheme: To counter the issue of poor air quality, Delhi government launched the odd-even scheme, mandating only odd-numbered vehicles on road on odd days, and only even-numbered vehicles on even days. With high penalties on violations, the implementation of the scheme is a success. But given that this scheme is applied only when the pollution levels have already crossed the benchmark, it is only a measure of respite and only caters to vehicular pollution.
  • Ban on sale of fire-crackers: The Supreme Court banned the sale of fireworks in the capital until after Diwali, but many residents bought them from neighbouring states or from unregulated markets of Delhi.
  • Incentives: The judges of the SC asked the Punjab government to pay 100/quintal to farmers as an incentive not to burn stubble. But this amount is too low to incentivize farmers to stop stubble burning.
  • Other measures: Other measures by the authorities to combat air pollution include:
    • Road sweeping machines and water sprinklers to reduce dust in Delhi
    • Large-scale planting of saplings to eventually act as a shield against pollution
    • Mandating covering of construction sites
    • Ensuring no burning of dry leaves, garbage and other solid wastes
  • Most of these measures are either too costly or have a long gestation period. There is also the issue of ensuring strict enforcement. Most measures seem to be scratching the surface of the paddy problem, when in fact the problem is much deeper than stubble-burning.

What is the deeper problem?

  • Shift of cropping pattern away from corn: The Punjab-Haryana belt was never India’s rice belt before the Green Revolution. Punjab was known for ‘makki ki roti and sarson ka saag’, but now, it is rare to see makki (corn) in Punjab. Much of the kharif area is under rice.
  • Higher profits on paddy: Farmers go for paddy as it gives them higher profits compared to crops like corn. The key reasons are as follows:
    • Massive subsidies on power by the state
    • Fertilizer subsidy by the Centre
    • Assured procurement of paddy by the state agencies on behalf of the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
  • Political clout of farmers: Given our political economy of securing votes through free power and cheap fertilizers, it is unlikely that the Centre and states will abolish fertilizer and power subsidies offered to farmers, who form a major vote bank in states of Punjab and Haryana.
  • Depleting ground water table: Paddy cultivation in this belt is against its natural endowment of water. Since paddy is a high water-consuming crop, and there is little natural rainfall for it, one kg of rice requires about 5,000 litres of irrigation water. This shift in cropping pattern has wreaked havoc on the groundwater table, which is depleting at about 33 cm each year. More than three-fourths of the blocks in Punjab are over-exploited.
  • Compressed harvesting season: In order to save water during the peak summer season, the Punjab government passed a legislation stating that no one will sow paddy before June 15. This pushes the harvesting period to late-October to mid-November, leaving very little time for the sowing of rabi crops. So in a compressed season, farmers rely on low cost machines like ‘harvest combines’ to harvest paddy, and burn the stubble to quickly move to sowing wheat.
  • Expensive farm labour: The stubble burning issue has become more acute in recent years because mechanised harvesters leave more residue than when crops are plucked by hand. But such harvesters are more popular because of farmer lobbies and also because farm labour has become expensive, especially during the peak season.

Proposed changes in Agricultural Policy

Solution to the problem of pollution caused by CRB rests with the political class at the Centre and states, because it is the elected representatives that make policies for grain management.

  • Shift to corn cultivation: To curb NCR air pollution from stubble burning, the government should incentivise Punjab and Haryana farmers to switch from paddy to corn. About two million hectares of rice area from this belt can be moved to eastern parts of the country, where water availability is abundant.
  • Focus on Basmati rice: The value of basmati is almost three times higher than that of common rice, and much of that is exported. So, Punjab and Haryana should focus primarily on basmati, which gives three times higher value for every drop of water consumed, and try to get away from common paddy, which is basically for feeding the Public Distribution System, where rice is sold to consumers at Rs. 3/kg under the National Food Security Act.
  • Subsidy in cash: Subsidies on power and fertilizers are unlikely to go in near future, so a move towards giving these subsidies in cash on a per hectare basis can be some improvement over the existing situation. A cash incentive for growing corn in place of paddy, it may encourage farmers to switch from common paddy to corn. According to one study, the combined subsidy on power for irrigation and fertiliser consumption in paddy is about Rs. 15,000/ha. So, giving 12,000/ha for corn cultivation is actually transferring the subsidy from rice to corn cultivation. It will not cost the state or central exchequer anything extra but will just reshuffle the cropping patterns.
  • Change in procurement policy: Government’s rice stocks are way above the buffer stock norms. This reflects inefficiency in grain management. Centre should announce that it will not procure more than, say, 50% of the production of common paddy from the blocks that are over-exploited.
  • Creating corn-allied markets: Rather than being absorbed by government procurement, corn cultivation will have to be absorbed by feed mills for poultry, starch mills, ethanol, etc. So, tax incentives should be given for corn-based industries in this belt to create a demand that is market-aligned.

An alternate solution: Coasean Solution

  • Reciprocity: Nobel laureate Ronald Coase argued that harm (externalities in economics) is not unilateral but reciprocal in nature. In our case, both Delhi citizens (by demanding cleaner air) and farmers (by burning crop residue) impose reciprocal harm or externalities.
  • Solution to externalities: Coase offers two solutions to the problem of externalities: (i) command and control; (ii) trade in externality. Since the first solution has failed in this case, we can consider the second Coasean solution.
  • Costly to eliminate CRB: According to one study, if the 2 million odd farmers in the concerned states were to eliminate CRB at ?1 lakh per farmer (which is roughly the cost of adopting alternatives), it would cost about ?20,000 crore collectively.
  • Higher cost of CRB for Delhi citizens: Delhi citizens face enormous health and productivity costs (2 trillion annually) because of stubble burning. Health cost to Delhi citizens is 10 times higher than the cost to farmers of eliminating CRB.
  • Making eliminating CRB tradable: Making CRB tradable can establish gains from trade. Anything given to farmers over ?1 lakh individually and over ?20,000 crore collectively can incentivize them to stop CRB and adopt alternatives. This is much less than the cost Delhi citizens have to pay to avoid the harmful effects of CRB.
  • Following systems must be in place to internalize externalities and let private bargains to be struck:
    • Governments of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi can create a tradable CRB permit.
    • An ‘Exchange’ for CRB permit can be established; where citizens, non-profits and state governments can participate. This will create a market, reduce transaction costs and make the trade convenient.
    • Relevant property rights should be established.
    • Governments of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana should set aside a fund only for this purpose.
    • Exchange must transparently announce the prices of permits as well as the environmental quality.


We see that the problem of Pollution in Delhi is much deeper than it seems. It is for policy makers to delve deeper into the issue and adopt a multipronged approach to solve this environmental and agricultural menace.

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