CS Grewal, a powerfully-built man of 54, sporting a long grey beard, red turban and curved Shepard’s stick cuts a striking figure as he walks purposely across the land on the edge of his seven-acre organic vegetable farm in the state of Pubjab in northern India.
Black smoke slowly rises from his neighbour's farm as flames lick-up near to the ground in the rice paddies. Grewal's neighbour is burning the straw leftover from harvested rice plants to allow him to sow a new crop, wheat, quickly in the same field.
“Apart from that short period of the year when farmers burn the stubble, people don’t realize that farmers are actually putting oxygen back in the air—tell me any other industry which is doing that,” says Grewal.
Apart from the his seven-day week working on the farm, Grewal has a new mission—to help tell the farmer’s story on the ground when it comes to the lesser-known practice of ‘stubble burning’ which is a massive contributor to air pollution in India.
“Stubble burning is a wound which has been left festering,” says Grewal.
What is stubble burning?
After a rice paddy is harvested using combine harvesters, loose stubble and straw is left in the ground.
Farmers in India’s top two farm states, Punjab and Haryana, burn the stubble in the open to immediately prepare the fields for wheat cultivation. Since farmers need to sow that wheat within two weeks of harvesting the paddy, they burn the straw to save time, labour and money.
Paddy stubble is a relatively modern phenomenon. It has been blamed on farmers switching to mechanical combine harvesters in the 1980s which skim from the top and leave 15 to 20 centimetres of the paddy plant in the field.
Between end-September and mid-November each year, farmers from Punjab and Haryana states burn an estimated 35 million tonnes of crop residue after they harvest their rice crop.
“Farmers burning their leftover rice plants release black carbon as well as gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere that contribute to the smog that affects cities like Delhi at certain times of the year,” says James Lomax, Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture Programme Management Officer at UN Environment.
While India’s federal environmental court banned the practice of burning crop residues in five states, including Punjab and Haryana – the practice continues.
The damaging effects of stubble burning
Air pollution from stubble burning reaches the city of Dehli. Other contributors to the city’s poor air quality include open waste burning, transport, industry and thermal power stations.
As the Breathe Life 2030 website points out, the World Health Organization shows a Particulate Matter 2.5 level of 143 micrograms per cubic metre (annual mean) in the city. This is over 14 times over the Organization’s guideline of 10 µg/m3.
Air pollution levels get so high that many residents wear masks, while air purifiers in homes and workplaces are widespread. This pollution has even forced authorities to resort to emergency measures such as shutting schools and banning construction.
Shockingly, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1.8 million people die prematurely in the India annually because of air pollution.
Mobile storytelling allows farmers to tell their own stories
“We realized that stubble burning is causing a lot of pollution, and it is important to highlight unbiased stories from those people who are involved in the practice. No matter what you hear in the media, the reality on the ground is completely different,” says Tamseel Hussain of pluc which runs Let Me Breathe India, a platform that provides space to document and tell stories of living and surviving air pollution in India.
Let Me Breathe India encourages dialogue on issues like stubble burning. “We just did an amazing training for farmers in Punjab in October,” says Tamseel.
“Mobile storytelling has transformed newsrooms and how we view content on our screens and mobile phones. Farmers provide food on our table. Imagine if you could learn directly from them and find facts behind long-term environmental and pollution issues,” says Shubham Gupta, a 22 year-old award-winning mobile journalist who conducted the training course. Shubham also serves as head of storytelling for pluc.
Indeed, the reaction from the farmers who burn stubble was also positive. “The training is much needed, and it is also much needed to allow people to speak their mind and to cut through some of the rural myths surrounding farmers and their activities,” says Grewal.
The movement to stop stubble burning in northern India is gaining momentum, perhaps partly due to innovative movements like Let Me Breathe India. The group says that long-term pollution impact is often ignored and citizens’ focus on seasonal issues needs to change.
Instead of blaming each other, Tamseel Hussain says there is a better approach. Through mobile storytelling and training courses, farmers can raise their own voice instead of letting others talk for them.
Farmers themselves in the region are taking the initiative to end stubble burning. For instance, some farmers have improvised cheap tools to sow wheat without burning the paddy stubble.
“The issue of air pollution in India is complex and challenging. To help combat the crisis, UN Environment in India is supporting the Government by providing technical inputs to finalize the National Clean Air Programme which aims to have prescribed annual average ambient air quality standards at all locations in the country,” says Atul Bagai, UN Environment, Country Head India.
In October 2018, a top government official said that India aims to reduce stubble burning by 70 per cent in Punjab and Haryana.
“We have to find a solution to stubble burning. I am asthmatic, so I am sensitive to the issue on both sides. With initiatives like Tamseel’s, we farmers are finally being heard while also learning more about the damage that stubble burning does to people living in cities like Delhi through air pollution,” says Grewal.
“There is no reason that a bureaucrat, an entrepreneur and a creative farmer cannot sit down together to find a solution”.
Let Me Breathe’s video: The truth behind stubble burning as told by Punjab farmers