Over five years, economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be $190 billion, or nearly 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP
In a first of its kind report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has estimated economic and health costs of air pollution caused due to stubble burning in North India — which is around $30 billion or Rs 2 lakh crore per year. This is more than thrice the amount the Union government spent in its budget for the health sector.
Further, IFPRI also analysed economic loss due to air pollution arising out of burning firecrackers — around $7 billion or Rs 50,000 crore per year. This is only marginally less than India’s 2019 health budget of Rs 61,000 crore.
The study, which looked at crop residue burning (CRB), also examined factors like firecracker burning during Diwali and motor vehicle density. Over five years, economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be $190 billion, or nearly 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP.
Two agriculture-intensive states — Punjab and Haryana — burn crop residue on a large scale at the end of kharif (summer) season crops to grow rabi (winter) crops — due to the very short window of time between harvesting of paddy and cultivation of wheat.
In Punjab alone, an estimated 44-51 million metric tonnes of paddy residue is burned. Winds carry the particulate matter towards the national capital region (NCR) causing thick clouds of smog above Delhi-NCR as well as other regions.
The study says that CRB alone caused 66,200 deaths in 2015 in India. Besides affecting human health, it also deteriorates soil fertility, releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and results in the loss of biodiversity.
On December 10, 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned crop residue burning in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Children (below 5 years) and elderly (above 59 years) in urban areas are at high risk of acute respiratory infection (ARI) associated with CRB, compared to those living in rural areas.
Looking at sex differences in ARI risk factors, motor-vehicle congestion was a stronger risk factor among females than males. Similarly, cooking with biomass was a greater risk factor for females compared to males.
The study highlights that the risk of ARI is more than 50 times higher in Haryana than southern states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. “The negative health effects of crop burning will also lower the productivity of residents and may lead to long-term adverse impacts on the economy and health,” said Suman Chakrabarti from University of Washington, who is a co-author of the study.
The study analysed health data of more than 250,000 individuals (of all ages) residing in rural and urban areas in India. It also used NASA satellite data on fire activity to estimate the health impact on those living in areas with intense crop burning, comparing them with areas not directly affected by CRB.
Poor air quality is considered a global public health epidemic. CRB in Haryana, Punjab and firecracker burning during Diwali often take Delhi’s air quality to the severe category during winter months.
“Factors like smoke from burning of agricultural crop residue by farmers in Haryana and Punjab especially contributes to Delhi’s poor air, increasing the risk of ARI three-fold for those living in districts with intense crop burning,” said IFPRI research fellow and co-author of the study, Samuel Scott.
Despite efforts by the Indian government, farmers continue to burn crop residue due to lack of convenient and affordable alternatives. Eliminating crop burning will not only improve human health but will also contribute to soil and plant biodiversity and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The study recommends investment in agriculture sector in these states, and offering alternative crop residue disposal solutions to farmers which can also give them economic returns.
Titled ‘Risk of acute respiratory infection from crop burning in India: estimating disease burden and economic welfare from satellite and national health survey data for 250,000 persons,’ the study is co-authored by IFPRI’s Samuel Scott and Avinash Kishore; CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health’s Devesh Roy; University of Washington’s Suman Chakrabarti; and Oklahoma State University’s Md Tajuddin Khan.
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