The pollution question : What will it take for farmers in Punjab and Haryana to stop burning stubble?

Dean Spears
“It looks like an apocalyptic scene. A post-war scenario. You see huge plumes of black smoke coming out. I don’t know how to describe it.” My friend Avinash was telling me about seeing fields of crop residue burn in Haryana and Punjab.
Of all my friends who realised before I did that development economics is environmental economics, Avinash Kishore has been teaching me the longest. Almost fifteen years ago, we met one another first upon arriving at graduate school. We both stood flummoxed by the oversized wooden doors at the entrance to the castle where Princeton houses graduate students. We said hello.
I doubt Avinash started telling me about the importance of electricity metering for groundwater conservation that very day. But it would have started soon. A few years later, Diane and I rode with him and his parents – a party of six with the driver of the classic white Ambassador – to his family’s farm land, outside of where they live in Muzzafarpur, Bihar.
A coal plant is ten kilometres away. The sharecropping farmer complains to Avinash’s family that he thinks the ash hurts the fields. Avinash himself grew up in a house right across a pond from the rail station, but it never occurred to him as a child to worry that it was bad for his health. “We were just worried about it as a nuisance: the coal dust would cover our beds.”
So, Avinash has been thinking about air pollution for a while. A few years before we visited his farm, Avinash worked with us to get r.i.c.e. started as an organisation. If there are any principles behind r.i.c.e.’s work, they include the importance of seeing what you are talking about in villages, and of making an opportunity to learn about something else while you are there. In the summer of 2017, Avinash was doing a survey in Punjab and Haryana about varieties of wheat and rice. He tacked on a last page of questions about crop burning.
By asking his questions in the summer, Avinash was not there for that year’s season of crop burning: “My lungs are dear to me!” But he did have going for him that farmers did not think that he was there to learn about why they burn their crops – because he was not. “The first 45 minutes were what wheat did you grow, why did you not change, why did you not get more yield, and then suddenly a page of questions about this.”
Avinash’s strategy matters because, technically, crop burning is illegal.
Bans on crop burning from central and state courts have had little effect on the practice of crop burning, but the bans might influence how much farmers were willing to tell a surveyor. Luckily, Avinash’s pages of inane seed details had established his team as harmless. Most farmers admitted to burning their crop residue even though it is illegal – a good sign that they were willing to tell him the truth.
So why do the farmers burn their crop residue, blazing their fields into an apocalyptic scene? Avinash analysed farmers’ answers to the crop burning questions with Tajuddin Khan, a coauthor who studies food policy. The farmers in Haryana and Punjab did not think that burning residue was a health risk, even for their own family.
Avinash asked the farmers what mattered to their decision to burn their crops.
Health did not register: “when it came to air pollution, most people had rated it as low, and I think it would have been even lower” if farmers were not trying to give a polite answer.
To be contd