Late on Saturday afternoon, farmer Bheera Singh and his brother walked out to their adjacent fields in Jandiala Guru of Amritsar district with a box of matches. Sowing of the early variety wheat will begin in the last week of October, and the brothers had only a little more than a week to get their fields ready for the rabi crop.
Soon, the dry golden stubble on the entire 15 acres owned by the brothers was ablaze with leaping flames, and giant plumes of thick black smoke rose high in the air. Farmers can be fined heavily for setting their fields on fire, but the brothers had decided to do it anyway.
“We had a delayed (kharif) crop due to a shortage of labour (because of the Covid-19 lockdown) at the time of sowing in June. Now with just 10 days left for sowing wheat, we can’t wait in queue for a stubble management machine,” shrugged Bheera. “This (burning the stubble) is the only way.”
Despite a statewide ban on burning straw, fields have been on fire every 100-200 metres in Jandiala Guru, Tarsikka, Tarn Taran, Khadur Sahib, and Ajnala blocks of Punjab’s Majha belt. Satellite images from NASA have been showing large clusters of farm fires in Amritsar, Patiala, Tarn Taran, and Firozpur in Punjab, and Ambala in Haryana.
The Punjab Remote Sensing Centre at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, which tracks satellite images of stubble-burning, has recorded the most farm fires in four years this season. Incidents are up more than three times over last year: the 27-day period between September 21 and October 17 has seen 5,552 fires, compared with 1,695 in 2019, 1,533 in 2018, and 3,822 in 2017.
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Until Saturday, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) had imposed an environmental compensation fine of Rs 25.75 lakh in 961 cases, and realised Rs 1.25 lakh from farmers. In 822 cases, a ‘red entry’ had been made in land records, which can make a farmer ineligible for government subsidies or loans from public sector banks.
Some 1,171 cases had been earmarked for field visits after fires were detected in satellite images. A total 801 cases already confirmed by physical visits are likely to face penalties in a day or two.
In Haryana, the state Pollution Control Board has reported 1,710 stubble-burning incidents until October 15 this year, against 1,072 incidents in the corresponding period last year.
The impact of the fires in Punjab and Haryana has been visible as a smoky haze over Delhi-NCR and poor air quality index (AQI) numbers. According to SAFAR, the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality monitor, farm fires accounted for 22 per cent of the air pollution in the national capital on Saturday, and 17 per cent on Sunday.
While the Punjab government’s appeal to farmers and village panchayats has so far not been successful in curbing farm fires, acting on the directions of district administrations, panchayats have started to pass resolutions against stubble-burning.
In Pathankot district, 325 out of the 421 village panchayats have passed written resolutions against stubble-burning; in Nawanshahr, resolutions have been passed by 341 out of 467 panchayats. The resolutions seem to be having an impact – in Pathankot, no fire has been recorded over the past three weeks.
Sarpanch Dev Raj of Lahri Gujjran village of Pathankot district said that they passed a resolution on October 12 after convincing the villagers, because there was no point in passing a resolution if the farmers were not invested.
Similarly, panchayats of villages including Balsua (389 acres under paddy), Sukhalgarh (365 acres under paddy out of a total 430 acres of land), Bhoa (950 acres under paddy out of 1,250 acres), Sultanpur (325 acres), Govindsar (310 acres) Koghra (375 acres) have passed resolutions after taking all farmers into confidence. So far, no fire incident has been observed in these villages after the resolutions.
Block Agriculture Development Officer, Pathankot, Dr Amrik Singh, said: “There are around 50,000 hectares under agri and horticulture crops in the district, out of which paddy and basmati are grown on 27,500 hectares, which produce around 1.3 lakh tonnes of stubble… We have been asking farmers not to burn it.”
Should the appeals succeed, it would help prevent the release of 2.2 lakh tonnes of harmful gases in the environment, and would help farmers save around Rs 5 crore that they spend on fertilisers such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, he said.
“We are motivating farmers to sell their paddy straw to dairy farmers who can prepare fodder out of it. A large number of Gujjar families are ready to use this as fodder,” Dr Singh added.
Some 90 per cent of panchayats in Ludhiana district too, have passed resolutions. Over the past three weeks, Ludhiana has reported 108 farm fires, while Nawanshar has reported 15. Several panchayats in Jalandhar too have passed resolutions against stubble-burning.
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