There is no denying that the COVID-19 lockdown, to curb the escalating spread of the virus, has had a detrimental impact on the Indian economy. However, amidst all the tension and panic, one can also see a silver lining. In most metropolitan cities of India, there has been a sharp decrease in pollution levels due to the lockdown.
Almost 1.3 billion Indians are compelled to stay at their respective places, due to which there are hardly any vehicles on the road. With a small number of vehicles on road and most industries and factories closed, the existence of the chief pollutants like Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, PM 10 and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) has decreased by almost 50% in Delhi.
In the first week of April 2020, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the cumulative Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi was 82, which comes under the “satisfactory” categorization. The weekend before that saw the highest air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) in 2020 with an average AQI of 46. Similar studies have been conducted in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kolkata and Bangalore, and in every study, a sharp reduction in PM 2.5, PM 10 and NOx level has been recorded.
Amidst all this, there were reports of farmers in the Tarai region resorting to stubble burning as they were unable to sell off straws generated after the harvest. A similar concern has been raised by journalist and economist, Prannoy Roy, who claims that gradually, in India, farmers will begin the practice of stubble burning, which is highly detrimental as the smoke that is evolved affects people’s lungs severely and together with the coronavirus, it would be even more lethal. To be clear, stubble burning is practiced primarily in the case of paddy. Wheat stubble burning is still a very new practice in India as it is predominantly used for cattle feed.
Stubble burning, as a whole, is not an environmental-friendly practice. The smoke released due to the burning highly contributes to the escalation in air pollution. Harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, etc. are released during the practice. Why is stubble burning associated with the COVID-19 lockdown since it already was a common practice?
Towards the end of 2019, a new trend was observed in the states of Punjab and Haryana, where farmers were manually harvesting their crops and not burning the wheat and paddy stubble. Instead, they were selling it to other farmers to use as fodder for their livestock.
They were protecting the environment from harmful greenhouse gases that are emitted during the burning process, and the sale was also acting as an additional income for them. Some farmers would give the straws to paper industries who would utilize it to make biodegradable papers.
However, with the imposed lockdown, most industries and factories are shut, and farmers are unable to sell the stubble. Even finding labour for manual harvesting is difficult during this lockdown. Hence, farmers are left with no other option and resort to stubble burning. The news about the farmers in the Tarai region is also due to the same reason.
Usually, farmers of Balara region in Nepal, which is only a few kilometres from our Indian border, sell their crop residue in India, which is used for cattle feed. However, due to the lockdown, all borders are sealed, and the farmers are unable to sell their stubble in the Indian market.
While we rejoice the decrease in air pollution levels all over the world, one must not forget that these reductions are temporary. Also, one must not speculate that the clear and bright sky indicates that the wider issue of climate change has been tackled and is in control.
A climate scientist at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Wim Thiery, commented, “We need to make a clear distinction between air quality and climate change. When we talk about air quality, yes, less traffic, fewer planes and factory shutdowns mean less NO2 and other pollutants over cities. But for the climate it’s much more complex.”
Resorting to the practice of stubble burning due to the given circumstance will again lead to the degradation in the quality of air, and the emitted greenhouse gases will contribute to the global issue of climate change.