Notes from Health Cell Call on Air Pollution, Dec 14

Attending: Sucheta (Bay Area), Vijay (Columbus), Bono (Durham / Delhi), Shweta (Chennai), Sakshi (Minneapolis) Aravinda (Maryland)

Summary: Bono Sen of the Center for Environmental Health of the Public Health Foundation of India talked about her field visit to Punjab where she talked with farmers about crop stubble, how they managed it and the role of environmental psychology in promoting sustainable agriculture.  Planning a 3 year project that will begin in March.

Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring and the Healthy Energy Initiative, which documents the links between energy sources and health impacts, described the program she is leading on air quality monitoring and called for more organizations, especially AID partners to carry out the program in their communities.  She would provide training and technical support. 

Housekeeping: Recognizing that air pollution is a problem throughout India, not limited to the North, henceforth we will discuss air pollution.  Our next call will be in early January. 


Volunteers learn about efforts to address air pollution in India via video conference.


Bono – I visited Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Punjab and stayed with a family there.  Site visit was wonderful, informative.


Punjab is in a crisis mode.  Because of pesticide use / abuse, disease is rampant.  
Cancer, suicide, drought. Low fertility rate.


KVM organized meeting. Retired dean of Punjab agricultural university took us there, had interesting talk on the way. Met 60 farmers.  Most are not burning stubble because they work with KVM and are into natural farming.  Their philosophy aligns with the idea of not burning the stubble.


We met small and big landholders. We met farmers who have not burning for 10+ years, and some for whom this was the first year.   We met a farmer who burned his stubble and came to the meeting interested in learning about alternatives.   There were several ways to manage the stubble – mulching, plowing back into the field.  In some cases the straw can be cut and removed from the field and someone else comes and takes it away to burn elsewhere.  Govt is funding initiative to take the straw away but this is not good because it takes biomass away from the field.


3-4 people from the extension – KVK Krishi Vikas Kendra were also there.

They have soil testing labs and have found that nutrient quantity of soil goes down when they burn. Hence have to use more urea, etc.  When you use more fertilizers, your crop is more vulnerable to pests, then use more pesticides.  No one had calculated the cost of burning the fields.


When I asked Umendra ji, “what is the reason for the stubble burning?” he said that it had to do with environmental psychology. Farmers who understand the land and what the land gives them, do not burn the stubble. It became very clear that those who are not burning understand the health and land health impacts.  They also referred to the Guru Granth Sahib that the earth is your mother, how can you burn, etc.


My colleagues, who are environmental psychologists in Sweden, are also interested in studying this issue and working with farmers interested in behavioral change.


In one of the villages we went and just spoke with farmers without pre-planning any meeting.

There were two brothers – one was burning one was not.  

The non-burning farmer stated, “it is the right thing to do” and referred to the religious sentiment. His brother had more economic reasons.  “Once my kids are settled and i don’t have economic pressure i will not burn my stubble. “


This year there was a strong govt ban on stubble burning.  Many farmers refrained because of this.   Later ban was lifted, and farmers burned the crop en masse.   The farmers who did not burn the crop because of govt ban, were aware of health impacts and said that they would not burn next year.  I spoke to them and asked them.


One farmer who did not burn, said that after a long time he was able to see critters in his soil.  


There are solutions, the desire to change is there.    Some want some incentive – “If the govt gave us this / that …”


They were open, if someone showed them cost-effective ways of not burning.  When you read the papers, you get the sense that the farmers are very hostile.  But we did not get that sense.


Based on what we learned in 2 days we feel optimistic that there is a desire to change and they understand the consequences.  They haven’t actually always been burning the crop – it is because of the combine harvester.  Earlier techniques did not leave stubble.


Wheat straw – is used for fodder.  They only burn rice straw. There are two varieties of paddy

In one variety, the time from harvest to planting is only a 20 day window. When they have a longer window – they do not burn.


KVM is continuing its outreach to convert farmers.  Their agenda is not stubble burning – their agenda is natural farming.  


When the air pollution cell started I reached out to Umendra ji who explained to me that it is a behavior change issue.  I had assumed that all farmers do this, but learned that many do not.


I reached out to my colleagues – they work on water issues but are excited to work on air pollution. We are planning a 3 year project which will start in March.


Shweta – Please put together a 2 page FAQ on the issue. Critical at this point to share.  

Bono – yes I want to write an article for a newspaper, there is so much misinformation on this issue.  


  1.  Air Quality Monitoring Program / Healthy Energy Initiative

Shweta shared a note on the air quality monitoring program that Community Environmental Monitoring is carrying out in several cities.  They are inviting more partners to collaborate with them on this so as to reach more locations.



For each location, we want to have a local health partner, ideally a hospital – that gives credibility to the information.  You are not just publicizing a number but also the impacts, diseases associated with those numbers.  People pay more attention when you have something more than just a number.   You don’t want people thinking “this is how it is we just have to deal with it.”  We need partners in any part of India, it is a misconception to think that the South is better. 

In each location we need

  • Health partner
  • Team to put up monitors not only in the health facility but also the areas where the patients come from – e.g. industrial areas where there is little oversight.

In Chennai – we have 2 hospitals.  1 hospital has set up a monitor on their premises.  Partner hospital in the center of the city has set up a monitor as well.

We also have a machine that does low volume sampling for 24 hours.  Collects dust from a filter, assess heavy metals in the dust.  When we collect the filters and get them analysed, we may find out for example that this dust has lead, arsenic manganese, mercury.  The sources get tied to it – it may be a coal plant, etc.   Makes the link between the source of energy and the health impact. 

We have also tied up with a radio channel and local businesses.  Just like you have traffic updates, we have air quality updates.  People need to know.

We are going to have meetings with hospitals in Jan 8-9 (Kolkata), Jan 15-17 in Chandigarh.


Bono – Folks from KVM might attend the Chandigarh meeting.

Aravinda – We have reached out to Jan Swasthya Sahyog to see if they would like to conduct this program in Raipur or Bilaspur. Will encourage volunteers to contact other partners as well and invite interested folks to the next call.


NEXT MEETING of Air pollution cell will be in January – date TBA.

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