As air quality remained close to severe levels Sunday, farmers protesting at Delhi’s Singhu border said stubble burning does not have an impact on air pollution in the national capital. Doing away with the environmental compensation fines for stubble burning is among the demands made by protesting farmers from the Centre, in addition to their main demand of repealing all three new farm laws.
“The paddy harvest season is over, fields are not on fire anymore, but why is Delhi’s air quality still bad?” asked Balkar Singh (61), a farmer from Punjab’s Patiala district. “There are so many vehicles in Delhi, so many factories, and new construction work has been happening — that is the cause of pollution here, not stubble fires. We have lived in Punjab all our lives, we are not troubled by the smoke,” he said.
The post-monsoon practice of stubble burning in northwest India pushes Delhi’s already strained air quality into emergency levels in October and November. Every year, the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality monitor SAFAR publishes daily figures on the contribution of stubble burning in northwest India to Delhi’s PM 2.5 levels. On a single day this November, the contribution peaked to 42% and remained above 15% on 12 days, which could be the result of a higher number of stubble burning cases in Punjab this year.
“Using force will always cause resistance. Farmers need to be inspired to prevent burning of stubble… The government has been forcing fines on us just like they have forced these new laws,” said Nirmal Singh (80), a farmer from Punjab’s Rupnagar district.
In Punjab, so far the largest stubble burning state, there were 76,000 fire counts between September 21 and November 24, as per satellite data from the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre. This was the highest number of fire counts for the season since 2016, when there were over 81,000 instances.
Referring to the recently formed Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR and adjoining areas, which may impose a penalty of up to Rs 1 crore or a jail term of up to five years, or both for stubble burning, Singh said: “… does a small-scale farmer have that much money?”
Punjab government officials also agreed that the reason behind more fires this year was the protest against the new laws.
Unlike many other farmers, Singh uses a machine that chops and tills the paddy straw back into the soil — an in-situ stubble management method that states have pushed heavily over the last few years. These machines are being offered to individual farmers at 50% subsidy and to custom hiring centres (CHCs) at 80% subsidy in Punjab and Haryana under a 100% centrally funded scheme.
But Singh said that despite the subsidies, small-scale farmers cannot afford these machines, even if one has to take them on rent from the CHCs.
A solution to move farmers away from the practice, said Satgur Singh (29), a farmer from Patiala, is to increase their income. “Growing paddy has also affected groundwater levels in Punjab, in addition to the air pollution from straw burning. But it is being done since years and cannot be stopped immediately. Perhaps if we focused on organic farming, which may give farmers more profit on their crop, and move them away from machineries and pesticides manufactured by corporates, then they will stop the practice gradually on their own,” he said.
Another long term alternative is providing job opportunities to younger people to reduce dependence on farming, said Ram Singh (29), a farmer from Moga district. “If we need to stop the fires, farmers have to be compensated. The quality of our rice is among the best in the world and we make a lot of effort in growing it, but removing stubble from the field is a difficult task,” he said.
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