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

-Dean Spears
Contd from previous issue
What mattered was the simple economics. Crop residue is almost useless. “Are you kidding me?” Avinash explained, “a stalk is what? It’s purely carbon. Carbon and a lot of moisture, and a little silica.” All that carbon, moisture, and silica is just in the way of getting the next crop planted. That is expensive. “Taking it out and dumping it has labour costs.”
But while the crop-burning apocalypse is new, the uselessness of the residue has been true for a long time.
Many farmers in Haryana and Punjab can afford irrigation, so they want to clear the monsoon crop to squeeze in a winter crop. This, too, is nothing new, Avinash emphasised: “the second crop has been around forever.”
What are changing fast are labour costs and capital costs: wages are going up in India, but machines are cheaper than ever before. Hiring workers to clear the fields is expensive. More and more farmers in Punjab and Haryana can afford combine harvesters. Unlike harvesting by hand, a combine leaves stalks in the field (unless it has an attachment in the back to flatten the stalks, which combines in India typically lack). ‘With manual labour, the harvesting happens closer to the root. If you go to a field that has been harvested with a combine harvester, the remaining stalk is closer to your knees.’ Basmati rice, Avinash points out, is a special case, because it must be harvested by hand to remain unbroken (and saleable at high prices). Consistent with his theory, basmati fields are not usually burned.
Why would a farm owner not simply offer lower wages, offering to pay farm workers only as much as they can afford? One possibility, according to Avinash, is that workers may not take the job. Labour markets are a special type of market where the laws of supply and demand do not always apply in the ordinary way. In part this is because the sort of job you have is a signal about what type of people you and your family are. For example, the caste-related complication of the labour market for latrine pit emptying is one reason why there is so much open defecation in rural India. Few people are willing to be hired to empty a latrine pit, a job that is unfortunately seen as ritually polluting, and is associated with the lowest social ranks. Avinash wonders if agricultural labour is coming to also be seen with stigma, as India’s economy grows: ‘if you stay as a farm labourer, there is no upward mobility,’ a worker might reason; ‘your son will not be able to become a government peon.’
But even if agricultural labour were not stigmatized, rising productivity and improving education are increasing wages. Meanwhile, more farmers can afford equipment like combine harvesters than ever before. Lighting stubble on fire remains free of (monetary) charge.
Reinvent the harvest?
The problem is economic, then. The solution, in an economics classroom, is obvious. Regulate it, tax it, do not let farmers impose this cost on everybody else. Presumably, the courts had this sort of reasoning in mind when they banned crop burning. But, whether their farms were tiny, modest, or large, many paddy farmers in Avinash’s survey admitted to burning their crop residue anyway. When you burn your crop residue, it is obvious to everyone and sometimes visible from space. Despite crop residue burning being both illegal and obvious, there is no penalty. It would be possible to have an effective penalty, at least in principle. Avinash gave me an example: it is illegal to transplant paddy too early in the year, because then it needs more irrigation and consumes more of the water that everybody has to share. A government order in Punjab and Haryana requires paddy farmers to wait for transplantation until closer to the monsoon, rather than the peak of summer. If you violate the order, the penalty is severe: ‘They come with a tractor and plough your field back.’
It is understandable why farmers – some of whom are quite wealthy, but many of whom manage with small patches of land – would take the opportunities they have to make the money they can, without paying costs that they can avoid. Few of us go out of our way to pay costs that we do not have to. This is a classic market failure, familiar to any economics student. But when the government does not address it, it becomes a government failure, too. Unfortunately, the explanation for this enduring government failure is no social scientific puzzle: farmers are politically powerful.
The only solution is to meaningfully change farmers’ incentives: either by seriously penalising crop residue burning (which farmers will not like) or by implementing a subsidy or financial incentive that is only paid to growers that do not pollute the air. But such a subsidy would spend down the public purse, and will appear to some voters to reward bad behaviour. Faced with this dilemma, we might hope for a deus ex machina, in the mechanical form of a Happy Seeder, a device that mulches the straw residue from growing rice while planting new wheat seeds at the same time. Tajuddin and Avinash presented a summary of their research, which concludes with a dry bullet point: “most farmers do not know much about happy-seeders”. They report that “less than 10 per cent of farmers in our sample had seen a happy seeder or knew anyone who used one”. Among over 1,000 Punjabi farmers who they interviewed, they found about 10 using a Happy Seeder.
The impulse to solve social or economic problems by inventing a new technology is a familiar one in development policy. Bill Gates’ foundation promises to end open defecation by reinventing the toilet. For every problem, there is now a smart phone app – and a grant to fund the app’s development. Technology can change people’s behaviour, but only if it meaningfully changes their options. After all, farmers adopted combine harvesters because they are cheaper.
Yet, as Ridhima Gupta and E Somanathan summariaed the sobering results from a careful study of the economics of Happy Seeders: “the gain in average profit is small and so while some farmers will see a small profit gain, others may see a small profit decline when they switch to using the new machine”. The evidence suggests that neither Happy Seeders nor any other technology will reinvent the harvest without a change in farmers’ incentives.
Excerpted with permission from Air: Why India Must Solve Pollution and Climate Change Together, Dean Spears, Harper Collins.