Agricultural residue burning, one of the factors behind air quality turning toxic, has emerged as a national problem now, says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
“Higher rates of mechanization of harvesting and crop diversification, resulting in shorter periods of fields lying fallow, have perhaps contributed to this increase in crop residue burning," she said.
In November, the power ministry directed state-run power utility NTPC Ltd to mix crop residue with coal to generate power in all its thermal plants.
“We have been asked by the government, and we shall soon come up with a policy about this," said a senior NTPC official, who did not wish to be named.
On whether the project would be part of NTPC’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan, the official said it was a work in progress and a decision would be taken soon.
CSR Rules, which came into effect on 1 April 2014, state that companies with a net worth of Rs500 crore or revenue of Rs1,000 crore or net profit of Rs5 crore should spend 2% of their average profit in the last three years on social development-related activities such as sanitation, education, healthcare and poverty alleviation, among others
Amid a growing public outcry over worsening air quality, a few companies working with the farmers community as part of their CSR activities are realising the need to address the agro-waste management problem.
Ambuja Cements Ltd, through its foundation, is working with farm producer companies (a collective of farmers and private limited companies) to gather crop residue. It is seeking to incentivise farmers by buying agro-waste and using it as a biomass fuel for factory operations.
Pearl Tewari, head of Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF), said many cement companies are looking at alternative fuels to substitute coal in their factories.
“We realised, if we are trying to substitute it with all other biomass, why not agro-residue?. We tried this out in Rajasthan as a pilot in 2012, and it worked wonders. We bought 50 to 60 tonnes of agro-residue, and farmers have made some amount of money on that. This is a sustainable model," she says.
ACF has set aside Rs26.3 crore in fiscal year 2017 for CSR spending on agri programmes.
Mars Wrigley Confectionery, which works with farmers on sustainable cultivation of crops, focuses its CSR programmes on sustainable practices for mint, rice and sugar crops.
“Collaborations with farmers will be critical to making progress on climate change. We’re working to improve agronomic practices, reduce greenhouse gases emissions," says Kim Frankovich, global vice president, sustainability, at Mars Wrigley.
Divya Tiwari, chief executive at Bengaluru-based non-profit Saahas, which focuses on waste management, says, “The government should subsidize collection of agro-waste, or companies can utilise their CSR funds to buy out compost from farmers."
She explains that due to higher labour costs in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the cost of agro-waste collection, transportation and shredding is significantly higher than the value realized from crop residue. That prompts farmers to burn the residue instead, adding go air pollution.
The commercial supply chain and ecosystem for alternative use of farm residue, says Roychowdhury, is nearly ‘non-existent,’ and needs to be created, enabled and sustained through policy changes and corporate strategy.
Whether companies will persist with these efforts also remains a question. While a few are investing in sustainable farming practices, these efforts still remain minuscule considering the scale of the problem.
“Whatever is happening on ground is not enough as is evident from the scale of crop burning and pollution from it. Role of policy and industry has remained limited and ineffective," says Roychowdhury.
Tiwari of Saahas says the limitation with CSR funding is that most companies are keen on taking up projects in their direct impact zones, and agro-waste management may not be a priority for them. “But, since the issue (crop burning) has gained so much attention, there could be some companies coming forward," she says.