In a publication co-authored by Čauševic, the authors discuss crop-residue burning in India and its severe consequences for not only the rest of the country, but also the rest of the world. They describe how it has an effect on both health and climate, as well as how it threatens the country’s agricultural production.
Čauševic answers examines these issues and others in this Q&A.
You, as well as the other authors, define the problem of the government’s role in crop-residue burning where they want to protect producers and consumers against volatility.
Could you give us an insight into how the burning affects India’s economy in both positive as well as negative ways?A
One of the main reasons for the burnings in India, which are only a few decades old, is that people from smaller towns moved to the bigger cities because of work opportunities. It was more economically beneficial than staying in areas where the economic prospects were not as good. As a result, farmers could not find enough manpower to physically remove crop residue after harvest and therefore started burning the fields instead.
The benefits can be seen in the short run. By burning, they save money on equipment and labour for removing crop residue from the fields by hand. However, the research has evolved because of the many long-term adverse effects – economic, social and environmental. As the monsoon cycle is more disrupted and unpredictable, India will have a massive problem because it is crucial to climatic stability. Burning causes air pollution, which is terrible for human health, and burning the same fields every year kills microbial and fungi organisms, diminishing the quality of the soil. There are also economic problems as a result. For example, airports close because of smog fogs, schools close and people die from the health problems caused by smog. The economic benefits are visible only in the short-term by saving money on equipment and labour to manually clear the residue fields. Nevertheless, there are multiple negative economic, social and environmental consequences and they will cost the country for many years in the future.
Can you explain to us how the earth’s system tipping points are connected to this issue?A
They are financial climatic systems, such as El Niño or the Indian monsoon. They are biosphere units of the earth, like different jungles and forests. Through our economic activity, we as humans impact them through for example deforestation or beef, soy or paper production. For the Indian monsoon, human activity of burning the fields is polluting the air. The burning of the rice fields causes black carbon to end up in the air, polluting the air. This is because the monsoon controls rain patterns in India, which is vital for agriculture in the country. Burning at one time of the year creates a problem in the long-term, where the monsoon is delayed or there is less rain.
The Indian monsoon is one of Earth’s tipping points that is disrupted through human activity in form of burning fields, polluting both the air and the soil, which indirectly and directly affects the operating cycle of the monsoon, as a tipping point, but also has indirect and direct effects. Indirectly, it affects rain patterns and directly affects soil and earth pollution, causing different diseases and health issues.
In the publication, it is indicated that this will affect other parts of India, but also that it could affect other parts of the world. What are the risks for other nations?A
The negative impacts of the South Asian brown cloud affect the region, not just India. Pakistan is close by geographically, as well as Bangladesh. Changes in rainfall patterns with the monsoon and delays in the start of the monsoon by several weeks negatively influence rainfall patterns for the entire subcontinent. Furthermore, the deposition of black carbon decreases reflection and exacerbates the retreat of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan glaciers. In short, this means that the region has less rain and is getting warmer, which is most evident in the impact on crops. This has a high long-term risk of contributing to regional food shortages. India is a major agricultural producer. In addition, many people work in the agriculture sector and food shortages could lead to social unrest. Additionally, since India is an essential global agricultural goods producer, the global market will also be affected first and foremost by the change in prices.
Nowadays, it is illegal to burn fields and fines are issued to prevent them. However, putting pressure on individual farmers is not a useful tactic to address this issue. Crop residue-burning practices respond to a problem greater than the essence of the problem itself.
According to the research that I was a part of, the solution to this problem lies in the government. Our study showed that the Government of India has two roles: regulator and investor. Alongside a handful of influential investors, the government can and should do more to promote alternatives to the harmful practice of crop residue burning.
Cecilia Hellström is an communications intern at SEI HQ.