A study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in North India has found that air pollution from crop residue burning (CRB) — more commonly known as stubble burning — is a leading risk factor for contracting acute respiratory infection, especially in children under the age of five. CRB also leads to an estimated annual economic loss of over $30 billion in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.
“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 analyzed health data from over 250,000 individuals of all ages living in both rural and urban settings. NASA satellite data on fire activity was used to estimate the health impact of living in areas with intense CRB and compared with data from areas with no CRB.
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A direct correlation between increased crop burning in the state of Haryana and declining respiratory health was found. However, other factors that could impact respiratory health were also observed. This included firecracker use during Diwali and motor vehicle density. Economic losses owing to exposure to air pollution from firecracker burning were estimated to be around $7 billion a year. In five years, the economic loss due to burning of crop residue and firecrackers is estimated to be $190 billion. This amounts to nearly 1.7 percent 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,” said Suman Chakrabarti, a PhD student at the University of Washington who was involved with the study. “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.”
Overall, the study suggests that government initiatives targeting crop burning would be a worthy investment by the Indian state.
Crop burning and the related air pollution are also an issue in neighbouring Pakistan, where the practice was banned from October to December last year. A research study carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in November 2018 revealed that rice crop residue burning in the Pakistani province of Punjab was a major contributor to the formation of smog in the country.