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Developmental Issues

A farmer burns paddy stubble at a village in Ludhiana   | Photo Credit: Jacob Koshy

The burning of agricultural residue — a contributor to north India’s winter pollution — increases the risk of respiratory illnesses threefold for those who experience it. It may also be responsible for an annual $30 billion (approximately ₹2 trillion) loss in terms of days of work lost in States affected by crop burning, according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

The findings were based on a study of the health records of 250,000 people in Haryana (which sees a spike in crop burning episodes in winter), and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which don’t see similar burning episodes. The study is to appear in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Epidemiology.

The researchers used health records and satellite data from September 2013-February 2014. The satellite data was for crop-burning fires detected by the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Terra satellite, managed by the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA).

“We found that living in an area where crop burning is practised was a leading risk factor for respiratory disease in northern India. Whereas the total burden of diseases from air pollution declined between 1990 and 2016 due to efforts to reduce the burning of solid fuel for household use, outdoor air pollution increased by 16.6%,” the researchers said in a statement.

In Haryana, 5.4% of surveyed individuals reported suffering from ARI (Acute Respiratory Infection) whereas the reported ARI symptoms in southern States was only 0.1%.

Among those who reported suffering from ARI, 83% also reported receiving treatment for ARI at a private or public medical facility.

Whereas high-intensity fire exposure was virtually absent in south India, 17.5% of individuals in Haryana lived in a district where 100 or more fires per day were observed by the satellite.

Living in a district that saw 100 fires a day was the “leading risk factor” for ARI. These trumped factors such as cracker burning in Diwali, being a child below 5 years of age and, living in a district with high motor vehicle congestion. The study was co-authored by IFPRI’s Dr. Samuel Scott and Dr. Avinash Kishore; CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health’s Dr. Devesh Roy; University of Washington’s Suman Chakrabarti; and Oklahoma State University’s Md. Tajuddin Khan.

“Our study shows that it is not only the residents of Delhi, but also women, children and men of rural Haryana who are the first victims of crop residue burning. Much of the public discussion on the ill-effects of crop residue burning ignores this immediately affected vulnerable population,” said Dr. Kishore.

For about a decade now, Delhi has been complaining about the practice of stubble burning, holding it responsible for the abysmal air quality in the capital in winter.

In 2013, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued a directive to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, asking them to ban stubble burning.

The Environment Ministers of these States as well as top officials at the Centre declared a “zero tolerance” policy on the burning of stubble, which has been estimated to contribute anywhere from 7% to 78% of the particulate matter-emission load in Delhi during winter.

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