Every year, India loses an estimated $95 billion (£70 billion) due to air pollution.
When Delhi’s air quality changes from good to moderate to unhealthy for sensitive populations from mid-March to mid-October, talk about air pollution and its causes is quiet.
Then there’s winter. Pollution in any city mixes vertically in the atmosphere, and in the winter, the height at which mixing occurs shrinks by more than half, increasing pollution concentrations. Two more sources have also been added to the mix. By the end of October, the rains have stopped, and the winds are blowing in from the northwest, bringing smells from burning fields with them. Then there’s Diwali, the popular festival of lights, when millions of people celebrate by lighting firecrackers.
Both of these factors contribute significantly to the increase of pollution. When Delhi’s air quality reached dangerous levels in the first week of November 2021, stubble burning accounted for 42 percent of the city’s PM2.5 levels – small particles that can enter the lungs.
Consider the fields that are ablaze. Only 500-700mm (19-27 in) of rain falls on them each year. Despite this, many of these fields cultivate both paddy and wheat. Paddy requires roughly 1,240mm (48.8 in) of rainfall every year, therefore farmers rely on groundwater to make up the difference.
Punjab and Haryana, which grow a lot of paddy, draw out about 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater each year, which isn’t much less than India’s total annual municipal water requirement of 56bcm. As a result, groundwater levels are fast plummeting in many states. According to official estimates, Punjab will run out of groundwater in 20-25 years, starting in 2019.
The burning fields are a sign of India’s worsening relationship with its water.
Farmers used to grow crops using the water that was available locally. Tanks, inundation canals, and forests all contributed to reducing the natural fluctuation of India’s turbulent water.
However, the land began to change in the late nineteenth century as the British sought to safeguard India’s northwestern frontier against possible Russian incursions. They dug canals that connected Punjab’s rivers, giving water to a dry land. They felled trees and fed the wood to railways, which could transport produce from the newly irrigated areas. They also imposed a set cash tax, which encouraged farmers to plant commodities that could be easily sold. Farmers began to believe that water could be sculpted regardless of local sources, a critical shift in thought that is still affecting us now.
Droughts forced the Indian government to surrender to the “green revolution” after independence from the British in 1947.
Rice, a water-hungry crop, had been a marginal crop in Punjab until then. It was only grown on about 7% of the fields. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, paddy planting was pushed by demonstrating farmers how to tap into a new, seemingly limitless subsurface source of water.
The flat electricity rates used to run borewells were reduced and then eliminated, eliminating any incentive to conserve water. Farmers were taught that water did not need to be controlled, but merely extracted. Fields began to churn out paddy and wheat in the euphoric early years of the revolution, and India became food secure. After a few decades, though, the water began to splutter.
A 2009 law prohibited farmers from seeding and transplanting paddy before a pre-determined period depending on the commencement of the monsoon to protect groundwater. The goal was to reduce borewell usage during the hot months.
However, the delay in paddy planting narrowed the gap between paddy harvest and wheat sowing. And the simplest method to clear the fields was to fire them, resulting in the smoky plumes that contribute to the air pollution in northern India.
As a result, the deadly haze is merely a physical manifestation of India’s shambolic relationship with its water.
To address this issue, Indians must reclaim their respect for their water, which is a hard order after decades of neglect.
Consider people’s food and agricultural choices. Most Indians ate sturdy millet a century ago, which could endure the fluctuations of India’s water. There are many more Indians today, and they prefer rice and wheat rotis (flatbreads), making millets an unattractive crop for farmers to raise.
Pricing water, either directly or indirectly through the energy that runs the borewells, is considered political suicide. People, courts, and political leaders have moved on, at least until next November, as air quality improves from hazardous to (very) unhealthy.
However, the ticking time bomb of groundwater depletion continues. When that’s gone, the November air might be a little cleaner.