The Answer to Delhi’s Air Pollution lies in Sustainable Farming and Agro Waste Management


In the recent week, we have been hearing about Delhi’s critical air quality levels. A report in the “The Hindu” says Delhi’s air quality has reached “emergency levels”. Particulates and benzene levels (carcinogenic agent) in the air registered shockingly high values (PM10 is in the range of 900-1700 microgram per cubic metre: standard level is 100) across the city.

The article goes on to say, “Doctors have cautioned that the particle matter can cause respiratory diseases if one is subjected to prolonged exposure to unsafe levels. The pollution monitoring agency has advised people to avoid outdoor physical activity when air quality is rated “severe”. People with heart or lung diseases, older adults, and children have been advised to remain indoors and keep activity levels low”.

A cursory study of the primary cause leads us to crop burning in Punjab based on a NASA’s report in the Indian Express. The report mentions, “farmers in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana have been setting fire to paddy stubble in their fields after cultivating the crop as part of the slash and burn”. A New York Times article, says air quality could be improved significantly if the crop fires in Punjab and Haryana could be curtailed. These fires are lit by thousands of rice farmers to rice straw that is left over from harvest. It is estimated that 32 million tonnes of rice straw is set fire in this season every year. This is done when farmers prepare their land for the next wheat crop.

Although in recent days, the pollution from lighting fireworks during Diwali was blamed for the current situation, it has been found that pollutants released into the air by crop fires account for almost 25% of the pollutants blowing across into Delhi from across the northern plains in the winter months.

The New York Times article further mentions that farmers about 160 km from Delhi are aware that they contribute to the poor air quality in Delhi through this practice, but that they have very few options. One farmer who was interviewed by NYT, mentions that he set his 7 acre rice field ablaze since he could not afford any of the new technologies available to handle the waste generated.

From the various articles, it is clear that there is no strategy available from the Government or any of the Pollution Control Authorities to deal with this situation in a holistic and long term way. While various technological solutions could be considered, any solution that requires a centralized approach is cost intensive and could address a very small percentage of the problem at best.

Sustainable Farming and Agro Waste Management: A Win-win All Round

According to INORA’s experience in this field, the long term and cost effective solution lies in a combination of sustainable agriculture and decentralized agro waste management. There are multiple benefits of this method, some of which are enumerated below:

  • Decentralised village level agro waste composting is cheap, cost effective, does not need transport or expensive technology.
  • The vermi-compost generated from rice straw in the fields will generate nutritious soil conditioner which when used back into the next planting season will lead to increase in yields over 2-3 seasons.
  • Overcome a significant part of the huge problem of air pollution that is being faced not just in Delhi, but the entire Northern Plains of India during the winter season.
  • With the use of vermi-compost back into the fields, the soil water retention would improve. This could lead to huge savings in water resources and consequently energy requirements for pumping water.
  • The need for chemical fertilizers could drastically reduce, hence improving farmers’ profitability.
  • Since agro wastes would not be burned, this would substantially cut down air pollution every year.
  • Compost increases soil microbial activity and enhances root growth, increases plant immunity. This would also lead to reduced need for pesticides and herbicides.
  • Part of the agro waste could directly be used as mulch material for the next harvest. This would cut back the growth of weeds, saving farmers huge efforts in removing weeds and associated productivity losses. The need for chemicals to control weed growth would be reduced.
  • General improvement in on-farm health both of farmers and livestock.
  • Improvement in nutritive value of rice or agricultural produce and the reduction of illnesses caused due to rampant use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • The use of compost in soils sequesters carbon. Good soil management practice is considered one of the most significant contributor in reversing the effects of global warming.

For more on the effects of good soil management on reversing global warming, read this from The Guardian

Possible Policy Support

  • By suitably incentivizing the use of compost on farms with an attractive price tag for any remaining excess, farmers could be pushed to compost in their own fields instead of burning this valuable resource. By setting appropriate quality norms, the government could source the compost for distribution and sale.
  • With a “smart” commercial public distribution model around sourcing and distribution of compost from farmers, the government could create jobs around this area and distribute the valuable input across the state and country and further amplify the benefits.
  • Along the lines of policy that has been introduced for promotion of city compost, the government could develop a countrywide policy for agro waste compost and offer additional financial benefits to farmers who compost on their own farms.
  • Recruit NGO’s with the support of CSR funds to bring training and awareness of these practices among farming communities across the country.

The Delhi Problem Turned into a Sustainable Resource: Some Statistics

Since reports indicate that 32 million tons of rice straw is being burned every year, if we were to consider this figure as a basis:

  • 32 million tons of rice straw would yield up to 16 million tons of vermi-compost when combined with the use of cow dung, earthworms and composting cultures in the composting process.
  • At a very conservative Rs 2,000 per ton, the compost could generate a sustainable resource valued at roughly 3,200 crores.  By burning this valuable resource, it is being transferred as pollutants in the air.
  • The compost generated could regenerate soils in more than 13 lac acres of agricultural farmland for the entire year, cut down farmers’ costs on chemical fertilizers, improve soil water retention, reverse desertification trends, increase groundwater quality, improve human and livestock health, prevent air pollution, sequester carbon back and generally create a wholesome environment.

The answers lie in the simple decisions taken on the farm, supported and enabled by visionary leadership in government to make this happen. It is possible only when the larger public interest is the first priority. Is it finally time for a shift in thinking? Are the powers that be listening?

It’s ironic but not surprising that the chickens have come home to roost in Delhi. It’s Delhi’s policy on agriculture, or the lack of it, that is forcing farmers to seek out unsustainable farming practices in the first place. It’s these toxic policies that will now lead to suffocating toxins in the air reaching the very same ivory towers where the seeds of today’s situation were sown.

Anil Gokarn, INORA