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Covid-19 Effects on Agriculture, Health and Law in India
Rohit Sharma1, Manpreet Singh2 and Avnish Jolly3
1Assistant Processing Engineer, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, Punjab, India
2Extension Scientist (FMPE), Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, Punjab, India
3Barrister & Solicitor, Winnipeg, Canada
Agriculture is the main stay of India’s economy. It accounts for 26% of the gross domestic product. It ensures food security for the country and produces several raw materials for industries. Agricultural development is therefore, a precondition of our national prosperity. The agriculture sector in India is already facing challenges by large-scale open burning of rice residue in north west India is contributing to severe haze in winter months causing difficulties in breathing and visibility.
Further, the Covid-19 disaster is already affecting the agricultural economy all over the world and the lockdown in India will have an adverse effect on the agriculture sector. The nationwide lockdown has entrenched the economic system. The agriculture sector is facing a lot of trouble with laborers and movement of goods. The restriction on movement of goods continues amid the lockdown, the farmers are likely to feel the pinch in their income. The farmers require additional funds and machinery operations to manage residues, and these funds may not be available due to poor economic condition of farmers and overall slowdown of the economy.
The agriculture scenario in north-west India is also facing tough challenge due to the Rice–wheat system and is threatened by growing scarcity of groundwater, declining soil health and environmental pollution. The harvesting of wheat in April season is unavoidable and cannot be postponed. This may aggravate the problems of farm labor due to the spreading of the virus from surfaces as well as by human to human transmission. The awareness among the farm labors to maintain social distance and use of masks during work hours is the key to avoid virus transmission.
The burning of rice residue contributes to atmospheric pollution that has serious human and animal health implications due to release of large amounts of air pollutants. Burning also leads to the loss of soil organic matter and precious plant nutrients (e.g. Nitrogen, Sulfur etc), which adversely affects soil health and sustainability of RW system (Yadvinder-Singh et al., 2014). On a global scale, air pollution is now the single largest environmental determinant of disease, contributing to 4.2 million deaths a year. Deaths due to crop waste burning across India were estimated at ~42,000 in 2010 (Lelieveld et al., 2015). Besides this, this system resulted in dead and excess stock lying at Food Corporation of India (FCI) warehouses creating storage problem (Anon 2020).
Possibilities of alternate use of crop residue
Crop residues are not waste but rather a useful natural resource. In-field retention of crop residues as surface mulch can play an important role in replenishing soil nutrient stocks and improving soil health, contributing to sustainable RW production systems (Yadvinder-Singh et al., 2010). The current options of using rice residue include; livestock fodder, livestock bedding, composting, electricity generation, mushroom cultivation, roof thatching, biogas (anaerobic digestion), furnace fuel, biofuel, and paper and pulp board manufacturing. Of the various ex-situ options, electricity generation and production of bio-oil have potential in utilizing surplus rice residue in the region. Generation of electricity is an attractive option but at present, only seven-biomass energy plants have been installed in Punjab, India but these plants face several problems due to high silica content in rice straw. Technologies to produce bio-oil (pyrolysis) and gasification are still under research and development to make them economically viable. Surface retention and in-situ incorporation are the most promising in-situ rice residue management options to address the issue of burning as well as maintaining soil health and long-term sustainability of RW system (Yadvinder-Singh et al., 2010). However, In-situ incorporation of rice residue is energy/cost-intensive as it requires 2-3 extra tillage operations in addition to the use of chopper to reduce the size of residue. Therefore, the need for providing a cost-effective and farmer friendly option for the management of heavy loads (8-10 t ha-1) of rice residue is both a major challenge as well as an opportunity for the sustainability of the intensive RW system in NW India.
Measures by the Government of India to reduce crop residue burning
The State Governments and the Government of India have taken a number of steps in the past to persuade farmers to stop burning crop residue. Notifications banning burning of crop residue, subsidy to farmers to acquire farm machinery that could promote in-situ crop residue management, use of paddy straw in power plants and other industries have also been taken on hand. However, in view of the limited impact of these measures, the Government of India in the year 2018 decided to launch a Central Sector Scheme on “Promotion of Agricultural Mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi". The scheme provided for higher level of subsidy to farmers for purchasing a bouquet of machineries for in-situ crop residue management. Subsidy of 50% of the cost of machines to individual farmers and 80% for Cooperative Societies, Farmers' Interest Groups and other collectives of farmers was provided to reduce their financial burden. (Anon 2019b). Stringent quality control norms were prescribed for these machines and monitored by different institutions of the State Governments, Universities and Central Govt. Institutions.
Some of the suggestion emerged with following objectives:
The movement of farm labor to their hometown due to the fear of COVID-19 has worsened the situation of farmers to handle the harvesting and selling of harvested crop in market. Besides, several farm machines like combine and harvesters lie stranded on highways as there is no one to operate them. Moreover, the corona virus pandemic may enhance the crop residue burning due to shift of government focus on the health care system and other supply chains rather than residue burning. The economic consequences of this disease could end up hurting more people than the disease itself.
The various efforts are needed in different dimensions for tackling the problem of residue burning in the North-Western states of India and the other parts of South Asia. Long-term adoption of this technology will reduce environmental pollution, provide economic benefits to the farmers and improve soil health.
Besides this, to combat the mass movement of farmers and farm labor, Government can make plan for picking of farm produce from the field itself, thereby restricting the mass movement and adopting the isolation strategy amid Covid-19 disaster.
Anonymous (2019a). https://www.grainmart.in/news/surplus-stocks-of-wheat-and-rice-bigg...
Anonymous (2019b) Report on review of the scheme "promotion of agricultural mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi". Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India.
Anonymous (2020). https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/fci-may-face-serious-stora...
Kumar S, Sharma D. K., Singh D. R., Biswas H., Praveen K. V. and Sharma V (2019) Estimating loss of ecosystem services due to paddy straw burning in North-west India. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, DOI: 10.1080/14735903.2019.1581474
Lelieveld, J., Evans, J., Fnais, M., Giannadaki, D. &Pozzer, A. (2015) The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale. Nature 525, 367–371.
Yadvinder-Singh, Manpreet-Singh, Sidhu, H.S., Khanna, P.K., Kapoor, S., Jain, A.K., Singh, A.K., Sidhu, G.K., Avtar-Singh, Chaudhary, D.P., Minhas, P.S. (2010)Options for Effective Utilization of Crop Residues. Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, India, pp. 32.
Yadvinder-Singh., Thind, H.S. and Sidhu, H.S. (2014) Management options for rice residues for sustainable productivity of rice-wheat cropping system. Journal of Research Punjab Agricultural University 51: 239-245.