NEW DELHI: India loses $30 billion every year from crop fires, especially in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, a new study estimates amid growing concerns over air pollution.
The study by researchers at the University of Washington and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) was published online in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Researchers used satellite data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for crop fires and merged it with the results of the fourth round of National Health Survey conducted in Haryana between September 2013 and February 2014 to measure the health impact.
“Our study gives evidence that it is not only the residents of Delhi, but also the farmers and their families in rural Haryana who are the first victims of crop residue burning," said co-author Avinash Kishore, a research fellow at IFPRI, New Delhi.
The findings showed a threefold increase in risk of acute respiratory infection, especially in children below five years of age, in districts that reported the highest number of crop fires. There was a spike in asthma-related emergency-room visits and hospitalizations in October and November, when farmers clear their fields for the next crop.
Stubble burning was banned by the National Green Tribunal in November 2015, but continues unabated in the northern states.
Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, witnesses a spike in air pollution in winter because of the high level of PM2.5 (tiny particulate matter that settles in the lungs). The pollution is about 20 times higher than the World Health Organization’s threshold for safe air.
“It is a public health emergency. If immediate steps are not taken, it is only going to increase the healthcare costs over time. The productivity of residents would go down and there would be adverse impacts on the economy and health," according to Suman Chakrabarti of the University of Washington.
The relation between pollution and mortality is well-established. Nearly 12.5% of the total deaths in India in 2017 were attributable to air pollution, which remains the third leading risk factor for mortality in the country.
The researchers highlight that this is the only study to systematically estimate the effect of exposure to crop fires on respiratory infections in India and measure the economic impact.
The study warns that in next five years economic loss because of burning of crop residue is likely to be around $190 billion, which is nearly 1.7% of India`s gross domestic product (GDP).
The economic loss from exposure to air pollution emanating from burning firecrackers is estimated to be around nearly $7 billion a year.
“Rice cultivation is the primary source of stubble burning. It not only contributes to air pollution, but also leads to severe water depletion. The best long-term solution is shifting cropping pattern away from paddy. The government should encourage and incentivize farmers to grow other crops. Only high-value paddy such as basmati should be preferred. However, this is expensive and its market is extremely competitive," said Kishore.