Does stubble burning significantly contribute to deadly smog? Yes. Will a complete ban bring smog under control, as seen in China? Also, yes. Is it possible to successfully implement such ban? A resounding no.
The ritualistic flurry of public debate surrounding smog with the onset of every autumn season has helped establish few facts. One, contribution of stubble burning (paddy) to smog - according to oft cited studies such as one by FAO - is material at close to one-third. Two, pollutant fumes caused by burning of straws is by no means the only or even major contributor, as the mixture of industrial and urban (primarily vehicular) pollution is what makes for the deadly combo.
Third, farmers resort to stubble burning as they have little choice. Mechanized alternatives such as Kabota harvesters are uneconomical, as the rent alone is close to Rs 8,000 per acre; and manual removal of straws is time consuming and results in delay of subsequent crop sowing, affecting its yield adversely. Fourth, paddy stubble burning during kharif season is nowhere close to wheat residue burning, mainly because the size of wheat crop is three times that of rice cultivation.
The last fact is where the conversation takes a technical turn; smog is not a summer problem post-wheat harvest because it is caused by entrapment of toxic emissions in the lower atmosphere during winter/paddy burning season, which does not happen in warm weather.
So, if crop burning unto its own does not always lead to smog, should it continue unabated? Common sense disagrees. As any elementary school pupil studying geography would point out, just because fumes don’t turn into smog does not mean they are not hazardous to human health and the environment.
The counter point raised insists that rice cultivation in northern Punjab is a century-old phenomenon, as is subsequent stubble burning upon harvest. Moreover, it is added emphatically, that the problem is not remotely as bad in the northern rice bowl, where regions such as Gujranwala, Hafizabad, and Sialkot have the largest tracts of rice cultivation.
If the premise - that smog results from a combination of farming and industrial pollutants – is to be believed, then the fallacy in the above argument should be obvious. Unlike the traditional rice cultivation regions, the paddy belt surrounding Lahore and central Punjab is more heavily industrialized, manifesting itself in the annual deadly aerial appearance.
One solution proposed is to incentivize farmer use of mechanized harvesters by providing subsidy for its deployment; sorely missing the obvious problem of fiscal space at both centre and province for any such support mechanism. Another proposal takes back to era of crop zoning, so that areas more vulnerable to smog may be disallowed from paddy cultivation altogether. Would that put a stop to farming fumes? No, but merely create an apartheid zone of stubble burners. Not to mention the reduction in aggregate rice output and its adverse effects on price, availability, and exportable surplus.
Moreover, either of those measures will be a treatment of the symptom and not the cause. The pertinent question to ask is why farmers are unable to afford mechanized harvesters, whether it is during the smog-causing paddy harvest season or during the otherwise innocuous wheat harvest?
The answer, again and again, is poor yield and returns to scale. Because the largest cohort of traditional crop growers is of subsistence and small-sized landowners – at less than ten hectares – these not only are able to ill-afford to higher quality varieties for sowing, but also resort to traditional practices of sowing that result in poorer yields. Pakistan’s rice output may be export competitive but returns to small- farmers are certainly not.
More importantly, cropping intensity as seen in the Indian sub-continent, where multiple food and cash crops are sown over two seasons – is not necessarily a global norm. Again, the question worth asking is why growers are unable to plant annual crops; the answer to which again takes us back to poor farm economics. Intensive cropping also forces farmers to use high levels of pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals – to gain profitable levels of yield, increasing their production cost and effectively reducing returns per unit.
The crisis of Pakistan’s largely subsistence and small-scale farming and externalities stemming thereof are structural. A subsidy here or a zoning there may help in window dressing the air quality indices. But underlying issues such as average small land holding size need to be addressed. Yet speaking of the cursed c-word – corporate farming – practically remains a social taboo. This is not to insinuate that corporate farming can be a cure all, but is just one example of the kind of tectonic shift the farming scene needs. Unless that happens, expect things to only get worse.