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News Article

Air pollution from India’s stubble burning has a toll on health and the economy

Economic loss estimated at US$30 billion a year

Respiratory infections are among the leading causes of death and disability globally. Respirable aerosol particles released by agricultural crop-residue burning (ACRB) are one source of air pollution which can be harmful to health. While in some Western countries stubble burning has been banned for health and environmental reasons, it is still a common practice in countries such as India. When rice farmers in north-western India burn their fields, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations in Delhi, the highly populated capital city located downwind of burning areas, spike to about 20 times beyond the World Health Organization’s threshold for safe air. A study byresearchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and partner institutes estimates -- for the first time -- the health and economic costs of CRB in northern India.

"Poor air quality is a recognized global public health epidemic, with levels of airborne particulate matter in Delhi spiking to 20 times the World Health Organization's safety threshold during certain days. Among other factors, smoke from the 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. The study also estimated the economic cost of exposure to air pollution from crop residue burning at USD 30 billion or nearly Rs. 2 lakh crore annually for the three north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.

The study, "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," 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, will be published in an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology. The study analyzed health data from more than 250,000 individuals of all ages residing in rural and urban areas in India. It used NASA satellite data on fire activity to estimate the health impact of living in areas with intense crop burning by comparing them with areas not affected by CRB.

The researchers observed that as crop burning increased in the northern Indian state of Haryana, respiratory health worsened. Health was measured by the frequency of reported hospital visits for ARI symptoms. They also examined other factors that could contribute to poor respiratory health such as firecracker burning during Diwali (it usually coincides with time of CRB) and motor vehicle density. In fact, economic losses owing to exposure to air pollution from firecracker burning are estimated to be around USD 7 billion or nearly Rs. 50 thousand crore a year. In five years, the economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be USD 190 billion, or nearly 1.7 per cent of India's GDP.

"Severe air pollution during winter months in northern India has led to a public health emergency. Crop burning will add to pollution and increase healthcare costs over time if immediate steps are not taken to reverse the situation. 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.

"Our study shows that it is not only the residents of Delhi, but also the women, children and men of rural Haryana who are the first victims of crop residue burning. Much of the public discussion on ill-effects of crop residue burning ignores this immediately affected vulnerable population," said Kishore.

Even though air pollution has been linked to numerous health outcomes, and respiratory infections are a leading cause of death and disease in developing countries, none of the existing studies have directly linked crop burning to ARI. This study suggests that targeted government initiatives to improve crop disposal practices are worthy investments.

"Programs and policies must simultaneously address indoor and outdoor pollution through a possible combination of bans and agricultural subsidies. Other important interventions for improving respiratory health are increasing household access to clean cooking fuels, electricity, and improved drainage systems," Kishore added.

The Environmental Impact search ("stubble burning" OR ("crop residues" AND burning) AND "air pollution" currently finds about 200 database records, with India and China being the main sources of research.

Vijayakumar et al. (2016) study the effects of agriculture crop residue burning on aerosol properties and long-range transport over northern India during a smoke event that occurred between 09 and 17 November 2013, with the help of satellite measurements and model simulation data. They report that smoke aerosols emitted from biomass burning activity from Punjab are a major contributor to the deterioration of local air quality over the NE Indian region due to their long range transport.

Agarwal et al. (2013) report on the impact of ACRB on pulmonary function in healthy subjects. Younger and older people were generally more affected by those in middle age ranges. Kaur et al. (2013) discuss farmer’s attitudes to CRB in Punjab. Many farmers opined against the legislative measures to stop crop residue burning, and described the reason for stubble burning as urgency to re-cultivate the land. Acharya et al. (2018) characterized emissions from open-field crop residue burning in northwest India. The measured concentrations of gases during burning showed rice straw burning spews more NO2 and SO2 than wheat straw burning.

Nirmalkar et al. (2016) report on the seasonal mass size distribution of atmospheric aerosols and their possible health implications in a rural area of eastern central India. Among the findings is that the mass concentration of particulate matter increases abruptly in May and June during the summer season, which was due to in situ burning of rice crop residues. Awasthi et al. (2011) present size and mass distribution of particulate matter due to crop residue burning with seasonal variation in a rural area of Punjab, India.

Journal Reference:

Suman Chakrabarti, Mohammed Tajuddin Khan, Avinash Kishore, Devesh Roy, Samuel P Scott. 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. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2019; DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyz022

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 06 March 2019
  • Source
  • International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Subject(s)
  • Pollution