As winters arrive, so have the incidents of stubble burning across the states of Punjab and Haryana. Despite increasing awareness and strict guidelines from the Apex Court, stubble burning remains a leading contributor to air pollution in the National Capital. For those unfamiliar with the term, stubble refers to the residue which is left behind in large quantities post the paddy harvest. As farmers burn the stubble to quickly get rid of their agricultural residue in order to begin sowing the next crop, these fires come with their own set of environmental side-effects. The process leads to the emission of various greenhouse gases as well as PM-10 and PM-2.5 particles.

Stubble Burning 2020 Statistics So Far

Delhi had witnessed a decline in the pollution levels post nationwide lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus. But, poor air quality also returned quickly as economic activities were resumed in the city. Adding on to the problem, early harvest of rice crops has also led to an early beginning of stubble burning incidents in the region.

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Notably, the combined daily numbers of stubble burning incidents of Haryana and Punjab have already crossed the 1000 mark. CEEW, Council on Energy, Environment, and Water has already recorded more than 9,000 fires from September 1 to October 20, 2020. It is over four times the stubble burning incidents of the past year for the same period. Unsurprisingly, the AQI (Air Quality Index) levels for the Delhi-NCR region have crossed the 300 mark representing hazardous air quality.

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Stubble burning May Increase COVID Mortality Rates

Stubble burning in the North has remained a constant concern for environmentalists for many years. But, it just gets worse with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare experts and environmental activists warn that the consequent air pollution can lead to a massive jump in the fatality rate of coronavirus patients in the Delhi-NCR region.

Two young environmental activists including a Class-12 student, Aditya Dubey and a third-year law student, Aman Banka had also filed a petition with the Supreme Court in September seeking a complete ban on stubble burning this year. The petition had cited various international medical studies that have found patients with weak respiratory system or people residing in areas with higher pollution levels at a greater risk of contracting the novel virus.

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It further noted that any increase in air pollution levels in the Delhi-NCR region this year can exponentially increase the mortality rate due to Covid-19. It can reportedly have deteriorating impact on the respiratory system of the residents especially children and the elderly.

Furthermore, severe air pollution is also known to worsen things for Asthmatic patients. Thus, it can also lead to a challenging situation for healthcare professions to determine whether it’s a case of worsening asthma or COVID-19. Not to forget, both radiological examination for the former and RT-PCR tests for the later can often take up to 10-12 hours. Additionally, enhanced levels of air pollution can also lead to direct pathway for the airborne transmission of coronavirus.

Possible Tech Solutions to avoid stubble burning

Stubble collecting machines remain to be the only major tech solution that we have for the problem. But, their high costs remain a challenge for small scale and medium level farmers. Thus, in the recent years, various educational institutions as well as government bodies have taken several initiatives to reduce the machine costs for the farmers.   

Notably, the Punjab government had distributed over 28,000 agricultural machines for the purpose before banning the practice of stubble burning in the state last year. But, most small farmers in the state complain that they haven’t been able to receive these or avail the subsidies.

PAU Rolls Out A Hybrid Straw Management System

Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana has replaced the happy seeder with a super seeder to help paddy farmers in the region. A super seeder is essentially a tractor-mounted machine capable of ploughing the stubble and also sowing the wheat seeds simultaneously.

However, it throws the ploughed straw to the centre of the field and thereby requires additional labour to then remove the straw from the field. That’s where their hybrid straw management system comes in. The dedicated super straw management system can be fitted into the super seeder to evenly chop the ploughed straw and distributes it over the field.

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While costing Rs 1.10 Lakh, Super Seeder adds on an additional cost of Rs 350 – 400 per acre in comparison to the happy seeder but also makes up for it by completely eliminating the labour cost of mulching agricultural residue.

IIT Ropar Students Aim To Bring Down Costs

Engineering students at IIT Ropar have also developed a stubble removing machine (SRM) that comes paired with a collection trolley to offer a cheaper substitute to the existing machines available in the market. Traditional balers and other such machines can cost from around Rs 7 Lakhs to Rs 20 Lakhs. But, the SRM machine developed by IIT Ropar students just costs around Rs 4 – 5 Lakhs. The team expects the costs to go even lower if it is produced at a large scale.

Additionally, another team from the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar itself is also working on environment-friendly ways to better utilize the residual paddy straw as manure. Moreover, it can also be used to make boards and bio-oil.

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Stubble can also be utilized at a much larger scale to replace coal in various thermal power plants. But, the straw first needs to be processed before it can be used as a fuel in a thermal plant. CSIR-NPL or the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Physical Laboratory in Delhi suggests employing the torrefaction process instead. It includes heating the residual straw at very high temperatures under controlled conditions to convert into high-yield bio-coal.

Thus, while there is no dearth of tech solutions for stubble burning, need of the hour is to make them more affordable for the farmers and economical for government agencies and other corporations. But, different organisations and tech innovators need to come together to propose and implement a sustainable tech solution to put a definitive stop on stubble burning. Especially, with already rising COVID-19 cases and alarming levels of air pollution; we simply cannot allow stubble burning to worsen the situation.

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