Long considered to be the ‘food basket’ of South Asia, Punjab is the most agriculturally productive region in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Unlike the spring harvest which brings beautiful colours and festivals such as the Baisakhi Mela, the autumn harvest results in a gloomy ambience, which engulfs the region in hazardous smog.
The R-Smog Report of 2018 indicates that air pollution in Punjab originating from vehicular traffic and industrial emissions is reaching its peak - emanating from agricultural sources and meteorological conditions during the October and November harvests, giving rise to low hanging air pollution.
Prior to mechanised harvesting, farmers in the region (as late as the mid-eighties) used to leave the crop residue to naturally decompose and enrich the soil for four to six weeks. Contrary to manual harvests, combined harvesters leave root‐bound, foot-high stalks that cannot decompose naturally until the sowing season. Furthermore, rice crop residue was previously used for cooking and home insulation purposes, animal hay and even in construction. However, with the intrusion of modern lifestyles and the disappearance of traditional, kacha villages, these practices are becoming obsolete - making it more likely for farmers to burn the excessive residue
The adverse health effects of smog are well-known. The Air Quality Life Index produced by the University of Chicago warns that the average Pakistani’s life could be reduced by more than two years because of the current air quality. WHO recorded 60,000 smog related deaths in Pakistan in 2015 and the Ministry of Health reported 1,000 new patients per day in Lahore during the smog season at major public hospitals.
Owing to this threat, governments on both sides of border have made crop residue fires illegal. However, smog conditions during the current season are a testament to the fact that regulations pushed hastily, without considering the ground realities are futile in solving the predicament. To achieve a permanent resolution, a detailed inquiry into current practices needs to be undertaken before asserting guidelines on rural livelihoods. Such a resolve can only come from providing financially viable alternatives that may render burning unnecessary.
Indian researchers claim to have developed a low cost microbial liquid that turns crop stubble into compost. Such products and awareness about them can be made available to farmers through initiatives like Bakhabar Kissan (BKK) (a collaboration with Jazz aimed at developing a farmer centric platform to bring together all stakeholders in the agriculture value chain). Another factor that makes agricultural fires appealing for farmers is that they burn pest eggs from the prior season. Therefore, any clean air initiative must ensure the availability of sustainable and cost-effective pesticides to farmers. Alternatively, crop reduce can be made into marketable by-products. This approach is essentially about mirroring traditional usages and adjusting them to modern needs. For instance, the ban on plastic bags is an opportunity to use rice reduce in manufacturing disposable paper items (using wood alternatives in the paper industry is beneficial on multiple levels). Furthermore, investments in the Thermal and Biogas energy sectors with easily accessible collection points can prove to be a feasible option.
Unfortunately, agricultural fires are an issue faced in many parts of the world, including China, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Pakistan. China has employed a micro solution called Smog Free Tower on an experimental basis. These towers use ion technology to produce clean air that can benefit people breathing the air in close proximity to these towers. However, at the end of the day, countries need to work together to find workable and permanent solutions. For instance, the ASEAN Haze Agreement, a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002 by all member states aimed at reducing haze pollution in Southeast Asia for the breathing rights of their future generations.
Sana Taimur is an architect, academician and a consultant at IMCD Islamabad.