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Tradeoffs between groundwater conservation and air pollution from agricultural fires in northwest India

An Addendum to this article was published on 07 October 2020


Air pollution imposes enormous public health and economic burdens in northwest India. Groundwater conservation policies appear to be exacerbating the crisis by concentrating agricultural burning in the late fall with a 39% higher peak fire intensity occurring when meteorological conditions favour poor air quality. Reconciling food security, resource depletion and environmental quality tradeoffs is necessary for achieving sustainable development in the breadbasket region of India.

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Fig. 1: Rice harvesting dates.
Fig. 2: Fires and PM2.5 concentrations.

Data availability

MODIS EVI data were acquired from the NASA Land Data Products and Services portal: MODIS active fire data were acquired from the Fire Information for Resource Management System: Measured PM2.5 data for New Delhi were acquired from the National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Network that aggregates information from 27 air quality monitoring stations that are distributed across the capital region. Year-wise daily data are available from the Government of India (note: filter results for ‘Delhi’): Satellite-estimated PM2.5 data for New Delhi were acquired from the University of Miami: Rice yield data for Punjab and Haryana were compiled from various Government of India sources:, and Weather data for New Delhi were acquired from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute: Political boundaries depicted in our maps are distributed as spatial data by GADM (


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We recognize early investigative journalism that hypothesized associations between the Groundwater Acts and the air pollution crisis in northwest India (see S. Narain, Straw in the wind. Business Standard, 15 February 2015; We commend this and similar efforts (for example, A. Kumar, Monsanto’s profits, not Diwali, creating smoke in Delhi. The Sunday Guardian, 3 November 2018;, and acknowledge the vital role of journalism for shaping and supporting innovative sustainability science.

Author information




B.-S. and A.J.M. conceptualized the study and were the principal drafters of the manuscript. A.K.S. developed the analytical methods and conducted the geospatial analyses. B.G. contextualized the research within broader frameworks for sustainable intensification, and contributed to the manuscript accordingly.

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Correspondence to Andrew J. McDonald.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Balwinder-Singh, McDonald, A.J., Srivastava, A.K. et al. Tradeoffs between groundwater conservation and air pollution from agricultural fires in northwest India. Nat Sustain 2, 580–583 (2019).

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