Why agricultural subsidies worsen air pollution in North India

Agriculture is not the only reason for pollution but the irony of agricultural pollution is that taxpayers are essentially paying for it through a system of subsidies, write Jessica Seddon and Ashok Gulati

People of Delhi, and the Indo- Gangetic plains at large, are living in a “highly-polluted airshed” and “choking toward a slow death” according to a joint opinion piece by Jessica Seddon (Fellow, Chadha Center for Global India at Princeton University) and Ashok Gulati (Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER) in The Indian Express.

As winter dawns, the wind slows, temperatures drop, and suspended particulate matter (PM) accumulates. The more-than-enough pollution in Delhi and surrounding cities from congested traffic, dust, construction, waste-burning and power generation accumulates and gets a top-up from the burning of paddy stubble in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh.

“This top-up varies daily — from 1 to 42 per cent of the total pollution, as per SAFAR’s reading from October 24 to November 19. But it is, in general, a big chunk of the poison, as growing research using a range of technologies and methods, from satellites to ground monitoring to chemical analysis, concurs,” according to the authors.

Agriculture’s contribution to air pollution runs even deeper than what happens between crop seasons.

The Indo-Gangetic plain is also one of the world’s largest and rapidly- growing ammonia hotspots. Atmospheric ammonia, which comes from fertiliser use, animal husbandry, and other agricultural practices, combines with emissions from power plants, transportation and other fossil-fuel burning to form fine particles.

“To be sure, agriculture alone is not the full story…But the irony of agricultural pollution is that taxpayers are essentially paying for it through a system of subsidies that actually motivates the very behaviours that drive the agricultural emissions that they breathe,” write Seddon and Gulati.

Much of the policy attention has focused on how to change the disposal of paddy stubble, but our current system of subsidies is a big reason that there is stubble on these fields in the first place. Free power — and consequently, “free” water, pumped from the ground — is a big part of what makes growing rice in these areas attractive. Open-ended procurement of paddy, despite the bulging stocks of grains with the Food Corporation of India, adds to the incentives. Subsidies account for almost 15 per cent of the value of rice being produced in Punjab- Haryana belt. 

Similarly, the roots of rising ammonia pollution lie in the way fertiliser is used. Fertiliser, particularly urea in granular form, is highly subsidised. It is one of the cheapest forms of nitrogen-based fertiliser, easy to store and easy to transport, but it is also one of the first to “volatilise,” or release ammonia into the air.

Note: This blog is a re-post of the original posted on the The Indian Express website.