«A Window of Opportunity»

Seema Paul talked about air pollution in India, its roots and solutions

Seema Paul, Nicolas Martin

It was the last of a series of discussion on India and we ended on June 4 where we startet on May 21: climate change and its effects on farmers in India. In contrast to the movie «Kadvi Hawa» which focuses on two individual fates, the discussion with Seema Paul, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) India, focused on the most pragmatic and quick solutions for the majority of people. Because, like everything in India, questions about the environment are also questions about scale. 

The numbers therefore are big and a complicating factor. India needs to grow: half a million people enter the labor force every month – where there are no jobs. Growth is already happening with 10 000 new cars entering the streets of India every day. Still around two thirds of the population work in the agrarian sector. And ground water is running dry – some estimates say that there is only ground water left for 15 years in Punjab. 

The hook

With Delhi as the most polluted city in the world – and six other Indian cities «up there» in the top ten – air pollution is a way in for organizations like TNC to create a momentum and work towards political change. «Air pollution is the hook – it is where political will is at the moment. That creates a window of opportunity», Seema Paul explained. Within the many sources for air pollution the TNC identified crop burning as the largest contributor with around 40% – next to 30% from vehicles, 20% from construction and around 10% from industrial production. All of these sources need addressing, but the easiest, quickest and most scalable solution is reducing crop burning in states like Punjab that directly and heavily influences the quality of air in Delhi.

In conversation with Nicolas Martin, professor for South Indian studies at the University of Zurich specializing in agrarian issues, Seema Paul derived what lead to the situation today. The biggest problems in Punjab reach back to the 1960s when India initiated its «Green Revolution» and turned into a food surplus country within a very short period of time. The state became the country’s breadbasket with lots of wheat and rice. But: Punjab is a semiarid region and rice the wrong crop to grow in that region. A lot of water needs to be pumped up from the ground to flood the fields – while a large part of the water just evaporates in the heat instead of nourishing the plants. The other issue the «Green Revolution» introduced was the practice of cleaning the soil, meaning no residues should remain in the ground from previous harvests when sowing the next crop. This all leads up to the current occurrence of crop burning in Punjab today. Due to the changing climate and the unpredictability of rain the time slot between the harvest of the rice and the sowing of the wheat has diminished down to three weeks. And the most efficient way for the farmers to get rid of crop residue is to burn it. On top of this, short-term political «solutions» aiming at the large demographic group of farmers are often counterproductive. Subsidies like free electricity that allows farmers to pump water from the ground for free, leads to even more water waste.

The solution

In a report TNC presented the «Happy Seeder», a machine developed in Australia through public funding, as the most scalable solution for the problem of crop burning. In one go it can shred rice crop residue, dig over the soil, plant a wheat seed and work in the rice residue as mulch – which helps the soil to contain moisture longer and reduces water usage. Within four months of presenting the report, 150 million dollars of subsidies were granted for the three states which effect Delhi’s air quality to buy and spread the «Happy Seeder». TNC and others like the World Bank are working on further solutions where financial incentives for not burning or not using as much water have been proven to increase the scale of efficiency even more.

Seema Paul is optimistic although she knows about how pressingly change is needed. But she feels «in India there is a growing recognition that it will find its own way – a mind shift away from waiting on support from third parties or countries.»


Listen to the whole conversation here:


Seema Paul is Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy India, an international environmental NGO. Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Seema was the Vice President at Climate Works Foundation and Founder CEO of Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to advancing climate mitigation in India. She has also served as Program Director for Biodiversity at Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation and is an alumna of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, University of Maryland, U.S., and INSEAD, France.

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