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India’s Toxic Air Gets Even More Toxic Every Autumn

Mumbai during the monsoon season. Punit Paranjpe/AFP


The late summer monsoon rains give life to India’s agriculture industry. Then, come the fires, contributing to India’s record as one of the most air polluted countries on earth.


In order to clear stubble from the previous harvest and make way for faster crop growth, many of India’s farmers set fire to their fields in October and November. A new Harvard study found that this practice of crop burning sends choking clouds of smoke through the air and can spike pollution levels in Delhi up to 20 times higher than standards accepted as safe by the World Health Organization.


This is partly why the chief minister of Delhi once noted that the city had become “a gas chamber” due to its toxic air. India has long grappled with air pollution problems. One study by the medical journal The Lancet estimated that some 2.5m Indians die prematurely from diseases related to air pollution. The study also noted that the poor are disproportionately affected by air pollution.


The International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and the United Nations have all pointed to air pollution as a major global challenge, leading to millions of premature deaths. The World Bank has also noted that air pollution is a severe drag on development and costs the world trillions of dollars each year. In 2013 alone, India lost 7.69% of its GDP, according to the same World Bank report.


We recently reported on the global pollution scourge and the industry emerging to beat it on our podcast. As the world marks World Health Day on April 7, there are few concerns more pressing than the quality of our air. As with all major challenges, governments cannot solve this problem alone. While sound legislation and effective enforcement are vital to solving the problem, the private sector can also play an important role.


Entrepreneurs and impact investors are coming up with solutions ranging from message alert systems on mobile phones when air quality is dangerous to widespread installation of air monitors in municipal centers.


A particularly promising solution cuts to the matter of crop burning. Prem Shankhar Jha writes that the rice straw in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh that is burned by farmers can actually be a useful asset: energy.


He writes:


“The only way to avoid burning straw and stubble is to find another use for the crop residue. Fortunately, there is a way; gasifying the straw and stubble in a two-stage process that yields a fuel gas that can be used for cooking, heating and power generation, and any type of transport fuel.


“Gasification is the incomplete burning of biomass or coal in a limited supply of air or oxygen. While fuel combustion yields only large amounts of carbon dioxide, gasification yields a substantial amount of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.”


Entrepreneurs who can solve this problem will save lives, boost inclusive growth, and find a commercial prize along the way.