• Rushmi Rosairo

Fungal spray; Might be What Finally Solves India’s Air Pollution

Picture Credit: The Telegraph website

India, an impressively large country in South Asia. Earning the title of the seventh largest country when considering its area. India is known to be one of the world’s most economically well-off countries, it is also known for its beautiful scenery and rich culture. However, unfortunately, it is also common knowledge that India is home to a number of cities which have the highest air pollution in the world.

The sluggish grey that cloaks mostly Northern India stands as a reminder to the severity of the air pollution, which is the cause of many health issues ranging from skin and eye irritations to severe respiratory, neurological and cardiovascular diseases. Air pollution is the cause of approximately 4.2 million deaths globally. India is currently ranked as the 5th in a long list of countries with the most air pollution. New Delhi has the most polluted air of any city in the world, India is home to 26 out of 30 of the world’s most polluted cities, when considering air quality.

There is continuous pollution throughout the year due to industrial and vehicle emissions, but studies show that pollution is particularly accelerated during October and November, and the smog can even be seen from space. During these months, it is not uncommon to see children and adults alike, wearing face masks (even before the start of COVID-19). On some occasions, schools shut down for a few weeks due to the smog worsening.

In October and November, the smog is, for the most part, caused by the ‘stubble-burning’ of the farmlands in Northern India. For decades now, the burning of roughly 5.7 million acres of land used to cultivate paddy, has been an annual occurrence. This practice flourished in the 1980s, after machines started to be used for harvesting. Harvesting machines are such so, that they shred only the upper part of the crops (mostly wheat, sugarcane, and rice). The remaining half of the stalk is left, that of which an approximate 550 million tonnes is left per year in India. With a very narrow time gap to clear the fields and prepare the field for the next crop, farmers took to burning all the residue (lower part of the stalks) left over, since the process is very time saving.

Picture Credit: India Today website

In 2015, with the increasing awareness for the environment, crop burning was made illegal in Delhi, and in the states Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Unfortunately, even with it being a punishable offense, enforcing the ban proved to be quite difficult.

Attempts have been made throughout the past few decades, to switch to more environment friendly methods of clearing the fields after harvest. In 2006, a machine was developed in such a way that the stubble is also removed while harvesting, called ‘The Happy Seeder’. Although, due to it being pricey, especially if the land is not very big, and after studies showed that the distribution of the seeds wasn’t uniform (causing issues with germination), it didn’t take with the farmers. A few years later, in 2014, a hybrid variety (drought tolerant and could be harvested in 120 days) of rice was introduced, but this too wasn’t met with much enthusiasm, as farmers were skeptical about the economic viability of hybrid varieties of rice.

Recently, a fungi-based liquid solution was introduced to farmers as a replacement for crop burning. Towards the latter part of 2021, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi developed a new organic microbial spray, called the ‘Pusa Decomposer’. In August 2021, 12 companies had been licensed to use this.

Composed of seven different species of fungi naturally present in the soil, and is chemical-free and non-poisonous, this spray has been developed to rapidly biodegrade agricultural waste such as stubble. The spray breaks down the leftover stubble in roughly 25 days, to the extent that it can be easily mixed with the soil and taken as compost. This method of clearing fields after harvest also takes less time, as the process takes roughly 25 days, whereas crop burning would take more than 45 days for the field to reach the same stage.

"When farmers burn the crop residue, the temperature of the top layer of soil rises to 42C and ends up killing all the beneficial microbes in the soil. The microbial spray, however, enriches the soil," states Ashok Kumar Singh, director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

Picture Credit: ThePrint website

Although, at the beginning, the fungal spray wasn’t as convenient as it was made out to be. Farmers spent a great deal of time and even money just to prepare the solution. Initially, the fungal spray came as a capsule which was to be fermented with water (5 litres), jaggery as a food source (150g), and chickpea as a protein source(15g), admittedly not very user friendly due to the effort that had to be put into preparing the solution.

Due to these flaws, the Pusa Decomposer had to adapt, now it is considerably more convenient in powder form. With the adaptations, machines have been made freely available to farmers in order to maintain uniformity when spraying fields.

The decomposer is doing well according to experts. Consumer feedback is positive; with farmers claiming to have saved up to 1500 rupees in fertiliser costs per acre. Currently, the Pusa Decomposer has been used in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where most of the crop burning takes place. That is roughly 1.2 million acres.

It is still the early stages of the Pusa Decomposer, and the results are yet to show, but with the usage on a wider scale, experts believe that this could truly make a drastic change in not only the air quality, but also the soil quality in India.

April 29th 2022 | 9:00 PM

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