23 Aug Can Technology Resolve the Air Pollution Crisis in India?
In October and November 2017, news reports emerged about the plunging air quality in the Delhi-NCR region. This particular incidence of poor air quality was linked to the crop stubble burning season – the time of harvesting the Kharif crop. While crop stubble burning is common globally, it is a widespread practice in the northwest part of India, which includes the states of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers in these states burn the stubble after a harvest season to prepare the field for the new sowing season.
A study conducted by Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University strongly establishes the link between the increased air pollution rates and burning of crop stubble. According to the study, in October and November, half of all pollution in Delhi can be attributed to agricultural fires on some days.
The World Health Organization lists a global database ranking of particulate pollution in cities, of which Delhi is one of the cities with the highest small particulate measurements in the world. Small particulates are particles under 2.5 micrometers, which often trigger several chronic illnesses related to the respiratory system. The WHO prescribes the safe limit to be under 10 μg/m3, while Delhi measured at 143 in the year 2016.
A recent study published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) (the report will be published in the upcoming edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology) discusses the adverse effects of air pollution in regions beyond Delhi. One of the key findings of the study establishes a three-fold increase in respiratory diseases from crop stubble burning. The report also estimates an economic loss of USD 35 billion annually. Yet another study published in 2018 establishes that air pollution in Delhi is the cause for 10,000 to 30,000 annual deaths in the city, making it about 80 deaths per day.
Technology to Address the Issue
Technology can play a large role in contributing to a solution set for this widespread issue. Technologically-supported change in farming patterns could be one of the ways forward. Some farmers have successfully experimented with the chop & spread technique – where they spread the stubble all over the farm instead of burning it. This stubble acts as a fertilizer for their farm.
Other solutions range from converting the stubble to biomass fuel and briquettes or embracing circular principles by using it as an input for creating new products such as furniture and sustainable building materials. However, the key to implementing these solutions could lie in creating a marketplace that can connect feedstock buyers to sellers. Quoting the example of a marketplace for hay and other feed in Canada, Georg Caspary, Managing Director, Greenbridge, an organization scaling innovative cleantech in emerging markets, says, “There is a need for an efficient marketplace for the crop stubble where buyers and sellers can find each other.” Greenbridge and Ennovent have partnered together to identify and accelerate potential solutions to the crop stubble burning issue in India.
Technology Transfer as a Way Forward
While innovations by the people on the ground and close to the problem could work in some cases, it is not always feasible. Technology transfer to developing countries could successfully supplement the process of innovation while resolving these issues. Georg agrees, “If you invent a technology in a global hub, like the cleantech innovation cluster around MIT in Cambridge MA, from the moment you come up with the idea, you have a lot of comments, peer review is built-in, and you get a lot of feedback from experts. Your chances of ending up with a high-quality technology are very high.”
While the technology developed elsewhere could have big benefits for the farmers in India, Georg adds that technology transfer is not without any challenges. “There are often three classes of problems associated with technology transfer”, he adds. “Firstly, technology is often too expensive and too complex. Sometimes the technology may not be culturally appropriate, and often maintenance and repair are challenging because it may not correspond to the standards in the country of use.”
In the past, Greenbridge has successfully implemented the transfer of clean technologies for mining camps in Chile. Georg explains the nature of the project, “We scouted various technologies; worked with a shortlist of technologies owners on pilot projects and did full technology implementation at the target site with the most promising technology.”
This is the right time to develop technologies to support farmers in India and to improve the air quality and consequently the quality of life for people.
If your organization wants to explore options to build a sustainable solution for the crop stubble burning issue in India, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can explore ways to work together to address these mounting challenges and capture business opportunities.