woman farmer in paddy field in india

Paying farmers not to burn their fields in India


Agricultural practices that increase farmers’ productivity are sometimes accompanied by negative environmental externalities, with consequences for human health. One example is crop residue or “stubble” burning, which increased across India after mechanized harvesting was adopted by farmers. Residue left by harvesters takes about a month and a half to decompose, which leaves farmers with insufficient time to sow their next crop. Burning stubble is a quick, cheap and efficient way to prepare the field for the next crop. However, crop burning also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity of agricultural lands, deterioration of soil fertility, and increased levels of particulate matter and smog that are harmful to human health. Children are especially affected by poor air quality, as prolonged exposure can lead to chronic conditions such as asthma.

In an effort to mitigate some of these harmful effects, we evaluate a payments for ecosystem services (PES) intervention that offered financial rewards conditioned on not-burning to paddy farmers in Punjab, where stubble burning is particularly prevalent.


This evaluation assesses the effectiveness of cash transfers in reducing crop burning and, thereby, improving air quality. In collaboration with partners, the team rolled out conditional transfers to farmers in randomly selected villages. 

In addition to evaluating a standard PES contract, we compare it to a contract that offers some of the payment upfront (without attempts to recoup it if the farmer does not meet the conditions), which could increase overall cost-effectiveness if it increases compliance with the conditions. Upfront payments may be important if farmers are credit constrained or if they do not trust that the conditional payment will be delivered if they actually comply with the contract. Alternatively, this upfront component could instead decrease cost-effectiveness because people who do not meet the conditions will receive some payment, even if they go on to burn their fields. We combine remote sensing data and survey data to measure impacts.


This project is a collaboration with Dr. Seema Jayachandran at Princeton University, Dr. Namrata Kala at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. Rohini Pande at Yale University, with support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Government of Punjab State.