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If recent discussions on air pollution in India’s capital are anything to go by, there is danger in the air and we haven’t been able to stop it. Various reports document how particulate matter levels in Delhi and surrounding areas are at alarming levels, suffocating its residents and halting daily routines for millions. The problem of poor air quality is (of course) not new: these regions in particular see hazardous levels of pollution and smog in the months around the festive Diwali season. This is compounded further by emissions from fireworks used to celebrate the festival, but a majority of it continues to originate from burning crop residue in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana (both major contributors to rice and wheat production).

Traditional policy measures kick in very quickly when political capital is at stake: state governments have provided subsidy schemes to farmers for purchasing machines that produce less residue, the judiciary said that crop burning must be banned in these states, and the union government works with state governments to provide subsidies and incentives. Nearby metropolitan regions such as the National Capital Region (the government of Delhi) meanwhile adopt emission-reduction measures such as vehicular restrictions and bans on high-emission traditional fireworks traditionally used in Diwali celebrations.

Much of these policies, however, speak very little to the stakeholders at the heart of the stubble burning: the farmers. It has been argued that farmers burn crop stubble because this is the fastest, cheapest, and least effortful way to deal with it (especially when turnaround times are critical for farmers who produce multiple crops). The alternatives that have been considered thus far is encouraging farmers to fit their harvesting machines with “Happy Seeder" machines that reduce the stubble generated. Researchers recently published a study in Science that suggests the Happy Seeder, with other straw management practices, could substantially reduce instances of crop burning; yet, that there is little uptake due to a variety of factors (including but not limited to cost, information constraints, and barriers to technology adoption). Another solution is to repurpose the stubble to generate fuel and/or energy, which requires additional equipment as well as financial and logistical support. Indeed, part of the Punjab government’s strategy to reduce stubble burning was to set up fuel plants that could absorb the straw residue and generate energy. This idea has also been recently proposed by M.S. Swaminathan, whose research foundation has set up a Rice BioPark in Myanmar. The problem also appears localized to Northwest India, since farmers in Southern rice-growing states do not burn their residue, but rather use it as fodder. However, what remains to be seen is how to engage with farmers better so that stubble burning behaviour can be reduced as it remains a key source of greenhouse gas emissions in India today.

When traditional policy tools fail, it is worth examining alternatives that take into account factors that could be driving farmer behaviour. Recall that stubble burning is preferred because it is fast, cheap, and low-effort: this is not just physical effort, but also mental effort as it saves the farmer from thinking about straw management once the harvest is complete. Buying fuel is cheaper not just in the financial sense: accessing subsidies come with significant opportunity costs for farmers who might otherwise be readying their paddy fields for a fresh crop. Thus, it becomes evident that farmers are not “thoughtlessly" burning their stubble; it is in fact a conscious decision in the face of alternative strategies available to them. One way forward is to employ policy interventions that directly address this.

Unsurprisingly, there is no robust experimental evidence in reducing stubble burning via behavioural interventions (although there are a few in subsidy schemes). One of the key insights from existing studies is that a social network can help in reducing information constraints and create new social norms. When it comes to technology adoption (such as the use of the Happy Seeder machinery), creating farmer networks and intervening with capacity building and targeted information delivery can help. As Lori Beaman and colleagues find, Malawian farmers needed to learn from multiple ‘seed’ farmers (key network influencers) before adopting new technologies. When it comes to behaviour that is dictated largely by existing social norms (a status quo), collective bonuses have also been helpful in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviour (especially if subsidies are integral to technology adoption). Farmer producer organizations or cooperatives already in place could be tasked with monitoring and implementing such an intervention. Finally, recent Nobel Laureates, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer along with Jonathon Robinson study technology adoption among present-biased farmers (immediate benefits and costs are more salient than those at later dates) in Kenya. Thus, a farmer wishes to get rid of the stubble quickly and burning is the fastest way to deal with this. Offering small, time-limited discounts to farmers helps: the timing of the subsidies (and their framing as discounts) therefore might make a difference to whether or not farmers decide to take it up. The same applies to converting stubble to fuel or energy; if services can be offered to farmers to manage stubble so that they are timed to align with harvesting patterns, then it may be more taken up.

If stubble burning needs to stop, it is clear that bans, incentives, and targeted subsidies may be useful to varying degrees but unable to wholly resolve the problem. Behavioural measures can be combined with subsidies or other incentives aimed at a subset of farmers and tested using experimental methods. Until policy feedback at the level of the farmer is taken into account, one might expect this atmospheric ballet to carry on unimpeded.

Anirudh Tagat is Research Author at the Department of Economics, Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai. This article has inputs from Venkatesh Tagat

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