Conservation: Winter hay burnings in North India
Whenever I head to my college after my winter break, leaving home and boarding the Mumbai Delhi flight is not the only thing which brings tears to my eyes. Last year, the pollution right outside the Delhi Airport on one morning was so severe that stepping outside of the terminal building, where the ventilation from the HVAC was substituted by natural means caused irritation to the eyes. Stepping out further and waiting at the taxi bay for another half an hour caused persistent irritation and even burning sensation to the throat. What’s worse was the smog cover around Delhi had restricted the visibility to sub 50 metres, delaying all incoming flights and only added to our delay.
But what causes such severe levels of pollutions? Those living in Delhi or its periphery will be aware, since this issue is not a recent development. But for those who are not, the reason for the increased levels of pollution is- winter hay burning in the agricultural states surrounding the NCR. Now the reason for Delhi’s thick cover of smog is not the winter hay burnings alone, but also the cold temperature and seriously high levels of pollutants and dust from high density of vehicular traffic. But the latter remaining constant throughout the year, the dense air in the winters and the influx of smoke from burnt hay catalyses the effect of the pollution leading to the infamous smog.
But if it’s so bad, then why is hay burning still practiced in these states? The simple answer is because burning hay is cheap. In the months of reaping the crop, especially after a good season of harvest, a lot of waste is also generated which is in the form of bushels and thickets (hay). During the harvest, the focus is on reaping the crop and selling, which means this waste simply lies around, occupying the farmland (presently uncultivated) for some time. This hay which simply lies around can become a home for a lot of pests which may also attack the granaries in the future. This makes burning a more effective solution to a multifaceted problem. Moreover, the months of winter can be harsh and heat from such burnings also adds to the list of merits further.
However, what comes off easy is not always sustainable. Besides causing problems such as pollution and leading to cases like the one described above, there are other downsides to burning hay. Most hay is burnt in the farmland itself, and leaves a layer of ash on the soil. In some instances, it is believed that this ash is actually beneficial and aids in improving the fertility of the soil. But this is not true and I can in fact prove detrimental for growing certain varieties of crop especially if the farmers practice crop rotation. All in all, even though the benefits of burning hay in winters may outweigh the drawbacks from the farmer’s perspective, the drawbacks to the rest country far outweigh any returns.
So what can be done to tackle this problem? The Centre has banned burning of hay, especially around NCR in the winters. And for the benefit of the farmers, it has also made certain provisions such as subsidiaries on renting machineries for collecting and compacting the hay. This can be beneficial to the farmers because huge batches of such hay can be used to generate power at power stations, paying the farmer for what he would’ve otherwise burned. However, this solution also falls back in the sense that the farmers may not understand how to operate such machinery for segregation, and huge batches of compacted husk will still lie around on the farm after processing until it is sold for power and lastly this entire process adds one extra step in the clearing process.
Thus another more sustainable way is educating the farmer about the downsides of burning hay and its impact on the environment. The call for conservation of environment is a serious one for all of us equally, and any negligence towards the same will impact us directly.