North India stares at pall of smoke as stubble burning kicks off

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North India stares at pall of smoke as stubble burning kicks off A drive along the National Highway 44, which stretches from Srinagar to Kanyakumari, would normally showcase the countryside in all its colourful glory. Last week, however, a drive down some of the highway’s stretches in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi had as its backdrop an apocalyptic horizon of grey, foretelling what’s in store this winter for residents in much of north India — a spell of deadly air pollution that will blow past all safety limits, exposing millions to air that is too foul to breathe. 

Smoke from burning of crop residue — the stubble left in farms after mechanised harvesting — was starting to envelop the skies. Governments in Punjab, Haryana and the centre have adopted several measures to mitigate the stubble burning after two preceding winters of terrible air pollution. But conversations with farmers on the ground reveal neither the fear of penalties nor the lure of subsidies are having an impact. They need to clear their farms quickly and cost effectively to sow the more important wheat crop. And burning the paddy stubble is what they plan to do. In some farms this reporter witnessed stubble being burned even as cops were standing around. Taking on the powerful lobby of farmers is not something most politicians in Punjab or Haryana will have appetite for, much less a beat constable. Stubble burning is episodic and seasonal and depends on wind speed and direction; and though there are no clear estimates, it contributes significantly towards the air pollution in north India every winter, says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment. “While the central government has provided funds for subsidised machines to farmers for in situ tackling of the stubble; it is up to the state governments to take steps to ensure that throughout the harvesting season from end-October to mid-November the situation is closely monitored,” she adds. 

The air quality in Delhi-NCR had already seen a dip the previous week, setting off a flurry of political signalling. The Delhi government’s emergency plan to tackle air pollution came into force and Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh asked the Centre to offer farmers compensation to not burn their crop stubble, at the rate of Rs 100 a quintal. While Punjab has always been a hub of wheat cultivation, paddy is a relatively recent entrant that is riding on the back of attractive minimum support price being offered by the government. Farmers must clear vast fields within a couple of weeks after the paddy harvest to prepare ground for the cultivation of wheat, their more important crop. 

Mechanised harvesting has made the process swifter but the machines leave about 2 feet of paddy stalks on the field. While wheat stubble is easily converted into cattle fodder, converting paddy crop residues to fodder is not as viable. To clear the fields, farmers in Punjab start burning the residue on fields across 41,45,000 hectares in October-November. The thick ensuing smoke envelops the whole region. The Haryana govt has said it is taking steps to ensure crop burning is not widespread. It imposed a fine of Rs 2,500 per incident on farmers caught burning crop residues. But that does not worry Suresh, a contractor who threshes grains for farmers. But what about the crop stubble on the ground? “If we don’t set fire to this right here, someone else will. After all this has to be disposed of,” says Suresh, refusing to give his second name. 

Burning seems inevitable, despite government penalties. “Local police come and check a few times. We pay the penalties. But even that is cheaper than buying or renting expensive equipment to clear the stubble,” Suresh adds. Haryana, which has 84,000 hectares of farmlands, has collected a measly Rs 4,30,000 as stubble burning fines this year. “But we are continuously monitoring the situation and the chief secretary has already had three review meetings since the paddy harvesting season started,” says S Narayanan, member-secretary, Haryana State Pollution Control Board. “Satellite data from the Haryana Space Applications Centre show a 40% decrease in smoke from stubble burning over the same period last year.In the district of Karnal, Mahtab Kadyan is dismissive of the government’s measures. The district convenor of the state unit of the Bharat Kisan Union, who also owns 100 acres of farmland, says: “The package announced by the government is making very little difference, especially for farmers with small landholdings. The cost of machines to remove residue, even with subsidies, and diesel will inflate harvesting cost. Most landholdings here are below two hectares and farmers are already burdened with debt.” The problem can be solved if electricity companies pick up the stubble (for use as biomass for power generation) directly and pay compensation to the farmers, says Kadayan. 

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By BOA Bureau