January 3, 2022

Technological solutions addressing India’s environmental concerns

Written By: Parul Soni

Steady depletion of the environment has been a global concern for the past few decades and has precipitated a climate emergency. This is especially true for countries like India where the sheer size of population increases the magnitude of the challenges of balancing development and ecology. As the world’s second most populous country and a powerhouse economy, India has multi-dimensional challenges that lead to poor environmental outcomes. Considering that fulfilling a need as fundamental as food is the duty of the state and agriculture is a well-known source of pollution, fostering the practice of sustainable agriculture will remain critical in meeting the sustained demand for nutrition while adapting to the climatic changes, and securing the livelihood of farmers who make up about 43 per cent of income-generating Indians.[i] By the same criterion of population, India is also at risk of becoming the junkpile capital of the world, unless well-thought out and calibrated measures are taken to establish the processes to pivot it into a circular economy. It is intriguing to see that technologies like plastics or pesticides that were once indicators of development and were deemed necessary for a better life have turned into the major contributors to pollution, affecting all aspects of human life. However, there is little doubt that in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, technology will play a vital role in mitigating the socio-economic concerns caused by environmental degradation. Technology has to be the mainstay of this transition – whether to fill the gaps or to promote innovation.

Sustainable agriculture for nutrition and income security

India has traditionally been an agrarian country and is among the top 10 agri produce exporters, providing a fairly large amount of rice, cotton, soya beans and meat to the world.[ii] In turn, Indian agri exports ensure nutrition security globally and income generation for farmers locally. However, agriculture is threatened by the changing climatic patterns – untimely rainfall and rise in sea level that increases the challenges of farmers, while increasing the demand for climate-resilient seeds, an R&D-intense area where India is still making progress.

Agriculture is an input-intensive activity where use of water for irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, farm machinery and tilling add to the adverse environmental impact. Besides, it is also an established source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A report by the International Energy Agency states that India emitted 2,299 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018, contributing about 7 per cent of the global emissions.[iii] Agriculture and livestock owned a share of 18 per cent of gross national emissions, i.e., more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Making agriculture sustainable will encompass using less chemicals and reducing the intensity of use of natural resources like water, and smart, frontier technologies like Internet of Things (IoT).

The term IoT refers to physical devices embedded with sensors, software, processing ability, and other technologies and are connected through the Internet or other communications networks so as to enable them to exchange data with other devices and systems. The benefits of using IoT in farming are:

  • It enables remote monitoring of farm conditions and infrastructure, thereby saving time and labour on routine activities
  • It helps transform information into data and improve decision making by analysing them
  • It generates faster and quicker insights from data across the value-chain, and helps farmers respond to market needs
  • It promotes efficiency in food production by reducing wastage and ensures safe and sustainable food to our customers through better traceability, thereby creating positive impact on a farmer’s income

According to IBM estimates, IoT may help farmers increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050. Apart from better pest management and weather forecasting, IoT, with the help of sensors, could save up to 50 billion gallons of water every year by optimizing water usage.[iv] To drive the uptake of digital technology in agriculture, Agriculture Victoria has rolled out a 12-million dollar on-farm Internet of Things trial in four regions for sheep, cropping, dairy and horticulture farmers.[v]

IoT can be used for a host of agricultural activities, including:

Irrigation and water quality management: India is a frontrunner in exporting rice, one of the most water-intensive crops – producing a pound of rice may need up to 2,273 litres (500 gallons) of water[vi] and flood irrigation, a highly inefficient method, is preferred by farmers in the north-western India. This has substantially stressed the groundwater level in these states and enabling better insight about irrigation can help people counter the growing threat of drinking water. The Internet of Things is a critical ingredient in optimising water use for irrigation in farming and related activities. There are four factors which can nudge farmers to adopt smart irrigation systems. These are: integration of real-time weather forecast data, enabling synchronization of the systems with moisture sensors installed in the farm, control of the system from anywhere in the world, and reducing farmer’s input cost while helping to conserve limited water resources. When combined with sensor nodes powered with wireless communication, it can help in monitoring the water quality as well. Such a system can measure the physical and chemical parameters of the water such as temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen, and the data can be viewed on Internet-powered devices using cloud services.

Integrated pest management: Though agrochemical use by Indian farmers is far less than the global average, most of the farmers are unaware of which fertilizer or pesticide to use for which crop and at what stage. This often leads to problems like residue or contamination of water bodies. While the government has proposed methods like Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), the uptake across India has been sporadic. As a result, adopting integrated pest management (IPM), an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on controlled use of pesticides and fertilizers, becomes imperative. It helps increase the quality of the crop even as it reduces the input cost for farmers. However, implementing integrated pest management requires real-time information on pest infestation. IoT infrastructure can play an important role by collecting disease and insect pest information using sensor nodes, and processing the data for enabling action. Even in cases where farmers are not comfortable handling devices on the system, local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVKs) can be connected on the platform to inform farmers about pest infestation status of their farms and guide them about the type and of pesticides they need to use.

Soil quality monitoring: The quality and fertility of soil are dependent on factors such as soil temperature, soil moisture, and microbial diversity. However, seemingly unrelated factors such as air temperature may also impact the quality and fertility of soil. Sensors connected to IoT systems can monitor the parameters and help farmers make informed decisions on sowing the seeds, use of irrigation or harvesting the crop, thereby reducing manual effort and water usage, thus controlling cost and environmental impact. They are also easy to install and low maintenance. IoT systems can be used for backup data securely, review historical or instant data to track trends or predict irrigation needs, and set up reminders. It also makes overwatering or underwatering of crops less likely and may arrest depletion of groundwater by promoting water conservation.

Other advanced technologies for sustainable agriculture: Tractors are one of the best friends a farmer can have. It reduces the effort to prepare the ground for sowing. However, a tractor can weigh anything between 1700-2600 kg[vii] that also exerts intense pressure on the soil. This may lead to compaction of soil, affecting its ability to hold water and making water and nutrients available to the plant. Deploying small robots instead of tractors can prevent soil’s exposure to this pressure as well as help farmers to take care of their crops better – these robots can be fitted with geotagging-enabled cameras, equipment for precise broadcasting of pesticide, and planting saplings. Adopting genome editing can also help in better practice of sustainability in agriculture. Genetic modification of select crops, e.g., fruits, can have twin benefits of saving them from being plucked too raw and use chemical ripening agents for making them consumable and preventing them from rotting naturally. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, more than 40 per cent of food produced in India is wasted, costing the country an estimated US$14 billion every year.[viii] Genome editing can help fruits like banana, which releases ethylene gas upon ripening that leads to ripening of other bananas in the proximity, to produce less of the plant hormone and remain healthy looking without any brown patches.[ix] Owing to the volatile public sentiment towards GM crops and genome editing, a transparent and robust governance framework is necessary before implementing such measures.

Case study: Shepparton East orchard, Australia

In 2015, Maurice Silverstein decided to upgrade his irrigation system to an automated drip system on his apple and pear orchard at Shepparton East, Australia. This upgraded system will allow him to access real-time soil moisture readings from sensors across the orchard and will also shift from sprays to drip irrigation, promoting more efficient and less water usage. It will alert him to problems in the system, such as blockages or leaks, and can be controlled by an app on his phone, empowering him to respond more quickly than relying on field inspections alone. This system allowed Maurice to be more efficient with his time and water, even as allowing him greater flexibility in terms of movement. Though he needs to be close at hand to fix any problems, he can manage his irrigation system and his orchard from anywhere that has internet coverage.

Case study: Detection of borer insects in tomatoes, India[x]

A study presented at the International Conference on Computing and Communication Systems in Shilong in 2015 discussed an investigation on IoT-based borer insect detection in tomatoes using a robot attached to a wireless web camera and Azure cloud service. The web camera used in the investigation took videos of tomato plantation real-time and sent the data to the Java enabled Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) where the detection in unripe tomato is done. The information was then processed by the database stored at the Azure cloud platform for matching with appropriate pesticide amalgamation, following which a robot sprayed appropriate amounts of pesticides on the tomato plants.

The process consisted of two stages. In stage 1, real-time video feed from wireless webcam, accessed at Cloud end, was converted into grayscale imagery. Image segmentation was performed later to eliminate leaves and branches, and images of tomatoes were retained by performing dilation, following which RGB images of tomatoes were retrieved using masking of dilated images. In stage 2, the number and type of pest on the tomatoes were identified, and an adequate amount of pesticide was sprayed over the tomatoes.

Waste management for better environment and economy

It is not startling to realise that India is home to 17.7 per cent of the world population and as per a 2016 estimate, generates more than one-tenth of global waste. India produces an estimated 277 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year, of which 77 per cent is disposed of in the open or end up in landfills, 18 per cent is made compost and 5 per cent is recycled. However, according to the “Swachhata Sandesh Newsletter” by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), as of January 2020, 84,475 wards of India produced 147,613 metric tonnes of solid waste every day. The tally is led by Maharashtra (22,080 MT a day), Uttar Pradesh (15,500 MT a day), Tamil Nadu (15,437 MT a day), Delhi (10,500 MT a day) and Gujarat (10,274 MT a day).[xi]

Inefficient management of solid municipal waste and poor implementation of existing regulations have made it a major source of air and water pollution in India. New-age, smart technologies can help us integrate waste management, monitor collection and disposal, and minimize the environmental impact due to waste mismanagement. Integrated waste management systems, powered by Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) monitoring systems, can monitor automatically, and operate from a centralised control station to ensure efficiency and will require minimum manual intervention, reducing margin of error. Smart technologies can be used in the fields of:

Waste segregation: Despite several attempts, instilling a culture of segregated waste disposal remains a dream in India. Technology can help improve the situation with innovations like smart bins. These sensor-powered, pre-programmed bins can enforce waste segregation and trigger a warning when the wrong type of waste is dumped in it. The bins may also come with interactive screens to guide users on next steps for a safe disposal of that type of waste. Improving waste segregation at source is at the heart of efficient management and will play a vital role in optimising the whole chain.

Waste collection:[xii] Currently, trucks carrying dumpsters to landfills are powered by fossil fuel, particularly diesel. This makes the waste disposal process a double jeopardy – while landfills themselves are a source of pollution, emissions from the trucks add to the pollutants in the air. Deploying a fleet management technology, common in the logistics sector, can optimize the waste collection step in the chain. Fleet management technologies use a network of sensors connected through GPS to create and analyse data to identify the best route for the fleet or individual vehicles, as required. This will help trucks to avoid traffic and not only reduce emissions but also enable maximum trash collection in less time. Besides, using vacuum suction to empty garbage bins through a network of underground pneumatic tubes can help in increasing the speed of waste collection and disposal.

Other advanced collection and disposal technologies:[xiii] Advanced economies have made substantial effort to improve their waste management measures, some of which may prove useful for India as well. One such innovation is a solar-powered waste compactor. This is a smart device that registers the bin’s fill level in real time and activates an automatic waste compaction. The compactor-bin has effectively increased a normal trash bin’s capacity by up to 5-8 times. A similar technology is an ultrasonic trash can sensor that regularly informs the user on how full is the container and helps in reducing the cost of overfilling a skip. Another similar intervention is an image-based trash can sensor that is connected through GPS and automatically monitors both fullness and contents. The sensor also determines which containers need service each day, schedules routes and allocates jobs to drivers.

Waste-to-energy generation: This is a well-known technology for recycling residual waste that uses combustion to provide heat and power, and in turn, reduces the speed of landfills that dot the fringes of all metropolitan and smaller cities in India. Though waste-to-energy is around for some time, the uptake has remained a challenge. There is little doubt that increasing the uptake of this technology will substantially reduce waste disposal to landfills and generate clean, reliable energy from a renewable fuel source, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emission. However, the technology faces hurdles in India due to various operational and design problems, lack of segregation of waste at source being the primary one.

Case Study: New York (the US) and The Hague (The Netherlands)[xiv]

New York has one of the more complicated waste management ecosystems in North America. The city is home to about 8.6 million people and employs around 72 hundred waste collectors to keep itself clean and sanitary. Times Square alone receives a daily footfall of about 500,000 pedestrians, creating roughly 15,300 pounds of garbage. In March 2013, as part of the largest public space recycling initiative in New York City, 30 smart waste and recycling stations were deployed in Times Square. These units were capable of waste compaction, equipped with real-time fill level monitoring and collection notifications. Connected to smart stations, these units increased the total trash collection capacity by nearly 200 per cent while the frequency of collection per bin decreased by half.

In 2009, the city of Hague in the Netherlands began installing underground trash bins that can hold a larger quantity of waste. By 2017, there were 6,100 such units installed below the pavements with the top of the bin coming out of the ground at waist height. More than half of these bins are sensor-enabled, allowing officials to remotely monitor the fill levels of containers and set up ‘smart schedules’ for emptying them. The Hague’s success with these underground containers put the city as an example of innovative waste solutions in a 2017 New York City Zero Waste Design guidelines report.

Case study: A zero-waste film set (India)[xv]

A gathering is an ideal setting for waste generation – be that a feast, a meeting, or work, e.g., shooting of a film. However, a recently-released Bollywood cinema titled ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ ensured that the city, which acts as its setting, does not start a landfill with its 17,000 kgs of waste generated in three months.

Six steps followed by the team include:

  • Replacing plastic water bottles with water dispensers and reusable water bottles
  • Using biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes and big bottles of toiletries instead of small disposable ones
  • Providing colour-coded bins for disposing solid and liquid waste and PPEs
  • Deploying a trained crew for segregating waste at source
  • Distributing leftover food among low-income families in the area
  • Recycling the waste into bricks, lamps, and other products

Conclusion

The prevailing discourse on environment-friendly technology often overlooks their hidden harms. Besides, most of these technologies are capital-intensive in nature. While COVID-19 has pushed the world to think about the environment with commitment, harnessing only capital-intensive solutions can cause ‘greenflation’ and affect overall productivity and growth of the country. For low-and-middle-income countries like India, access to advanced technologies to mitigate environmental concerns is almost always affected by lack of knowhow, adequate funds, and scepticism on part of the user. These can be addressed by focusing on easy-to-use and cost-effective technologies as well as right policy and regulatory interventions, and their implementation to promote adoption of technological solutions.

However, when it comes to environmental challenges, there is no better way to save the planet than to prevent the damage. Interestingly, though sustainable agriculture and waste management are India’s bigger ‘trouble’s, they overlap when it comes to food waste. A UN report in March 2021 states that household food waste in India is about 68.7 million tonnes a year. Food waste alone is a major source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that global food loss and waste generate 4.4 Gt CO2 eq every year, or about 8 per cent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, effectively making the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming almost equivalent to global road transport emissions.[xvi] According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), stopping food waste can reduce all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions by about 6 to 8 per cent.[xvii] However, the bigger concern is, wasting food also aggravates the overall greenhouse gas emissions scenario as it adds to the emissions caused during the production, processing, and marketing of these products. Besides, it adds on to India’s burgeoning and unmanageable waste burden. Therefore, in addition to sourcing or developing technologies to address the environmental challenges at hand, it is equally urgent to create awareness about the pitfalls of irresponsible consumption and nudge for behavioural change in consumers.

Author Brief Bio: Parul Soni is Global Managing Partner of Thinkthrough Consulting and founder and Secretary General of Association of Business Women in Commerce and Industry (ABWCI) – a Virtual Chamber of Commerce for Women. He is a consummate professional with over 25 years of experience and expertise in international investment, bilateral and multilateral trade, cross-border policies, regional trade agreements and negotiations at national and international levels. He has worked in over 54 countries with Fortune 500 companies, global alliances, industry associations, international development organizations and knowledge institutions. He has been working actively with fast-growing Indian entrepreneurial and global organisations for establishing and expanding their presence across South Asia.

[i] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=IN

[ii] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/india-breaks-into-the-top-10-list-of-agri-produce-exporters-11626975654126.html

[iii] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/agriculture/climate-change-and-agriculture-way-ahead-for-low-emission-growth-73537

[iv] https://www.sigfox.com/en/iot-soil-condition-monitoring-sensors-will-optimize-agriculture-through-data-2

[v] https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/farm-management/digital-agriculture/internet-of-things-in-agriculture

[vi] https://apnews.com/article/india-climate-change-business-science-environment-and-nature-52a57d80d1dcb85f508cfd5f80120870

[vii] https://www.ijcmas.com/6-10-2017/T.K.%20Maheshwari2,%20et%20al.pdf

[viii] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/india-grows-more-food-wastes-more-while-more-go-hungry-1752107-2020-12-22

[ix] https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/five-ways-we-can-feed-the-world-in-2050.html

[x] http://14.139.206.50:8080/jspui/bitstream/1/6301/1/NK006-20170724003.pdf

[xi] https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ORF_OccasionalPaper_283_SolidWasteManagement_FinalForUpload-2.pdf

[xii] https://wasteadvantagemag.com/5-futuristic-waste-management-technologies/

[xiii] https://www.norcalcompactors.net/technology-innovating-waste-management/

[xiv] https://www.iotforall.com/smart-waste-management

[xv] https://www.indiatimes.com/entertainment/originals/chandigarh-kare-aashiqui-became-a-zero-waste-film-556146.html

[xvi] https://www.fao.org/3/bb144e/bb144e.pdf

[xvii] https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/fight-climate-change-by-preventing-food-waste

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