Air Pollution

[op-ed snap] From Plate to Plough: A crop for clean air


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Changing cropping patterns to address pollution


Last week, the Air Quality Index (AQI) touched emergency levels in the National Capital Region. The Supreme Court came down heavily on the chief secretaries of four states — Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. 

Stubble burning

  • Paddy stubble burning in states neighbouring Delhi, especially Punjab, is being seen as one of the reasons for the smog in the national capital. 
  • Supreme court has asked the Punjab government to pay Rs 100 per quintal to farmers as an incentive for desisting from burning stubble. 
  • Solutions such as subsidising Happy Seeders are also being talked about. 

These solutions are not enough

  • The problem is much deeper than stubble burning. 
  • The solution to the problem rests with the political class — both in the Centre as well as in these states. 

Roots of the problem in Punjab

  • Green Revolution – The Punjab-Haryana region was not India’s rice belt before the Green Revolution. Punjab was known for “makki ki roti and sarson ka saag”. 
  • Much of the kharif area in the region is under rice — about 3.1 million hectares in Punjab and 1.4 million hectares in Haryana. 
  • Groundwater – This has caused havoc with the groundwater table that has been depleting at about 33 cms each year. Groundwater in more than three-fourths of blocks in Punjab is over-exploited.
  • Punjab regulation – In order to save water during the peak summer season, the Punjab government passed a law in 2009 outlawing paddy sowing before June 15. This pushes the rice harvesting to the late October-mid-November period, leaving very little time for sowing the rabi crop, mainly wheat. 
  • Harvesters – Farmers rely on paddy harvesters that leave stubbles. These are then burnt to make the field ready for sowing wheat. Farm labour has become more expensive during the peak season.

Why paddy?

  • Not aligned to Geography – Their water resource endowment does not align with the crop’s requirement. 
  • More water needed – One kilogram of rice requires about 5,000 litres of irrigation water in this belt. And, the natural rainfall is too less for the purpose. 
  • Profits – Farmers cultivate paddy as it gives them higher profits, compared to competing crops like corn. 
  • Subsidies – The key reasons for-profits are the massive subsidies on power provided by the state government and fertiliser subsidy given to them by the Centre. They are assured procurement of paddy by state government agencies on behalf of the Food Corporation of India.

Way ahead


  • Paddy in Eastern India –In the eastern parts of the country, water is available much more abundantly. 
  • About two million hectares of rice-growing area in the northern belt needs to shift to this part of the country. 
  • Basmati – The basmati-growing area in the Northern belt is about 1.2 million hectares; it produces 4.6 million tonnes of basmati. Its value basmati is almost three times higher than that of common rice and much of that is exported. So Punjab and Haryana should focus on cultivating basmati
  • They should get away from common paddy, which is largely meant for the Public Distribution System – sold at Rs 3/kg under the National Food Security Act.

Steps to encourage the shift

  • Policy at the Centre and state level. 
  • Chances for abolishing subsidies are remote, given the place of free power and cheap fertilisers in the country’s political discourse. 
  • Subsidy basis – A move towards giving these subsidies in cash on per hectare basis to farmers can lead to some improvement. 
  • Cropping pattern – Farmers could be encouraged to change their crop preference if the Centre and the Punjab and Haryana governments announce a cash incentive of Rs 12,000 per hectare for growing corn in place of paddy. It will not cost the state or central exchequer anything extra. 
  • Ancillary benefits of corn – corn cultivation will have to be absorbed by feed mills for poultry, starch mills and ethanol. 
  • Incentives for corn – tax incentives for the corn-based industry in this belt could create a more market-aligned demand for corn.


  • This is just the right time to make this switch from paddy to corn as rice stocks with government are way above the buffer stock norms. 
  • Centre should announce that it will not procure more than 50% of the production of common paddy from the blocks that are over-exploited.
  • It will not give to the state procurement agencies more than 4% as commission, mandi fee, or any cess for procuring on behalf of FCI.
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