Smokescreen: As fields in north India go up in flames, what makes Delhi-NCR vulnerable

Smokescreen: As fields in north India go up in flames, what makes Delhi-NCR vulnerable

The Indian Express tries to understand what makes the capital especially vulnerable, and why incentives to farmers have failed to yield desired results

Smokescreen: As fields in north India go up in flames, what makes Delhi-NCR vulnerable
A layer of smoke hangs heavy over Delhi-NCR. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Over the past week, all eyes in the Delhi environment department’s air quality division have been on real-time air quality data. Each little improvement in air quality is met with a sigh of relief, every spike in particulate matter (PM) levels elicits a groan.

As the monsoon ends each year, conversations in the capital turn to one of its most enduring problems — air pollution. Over the past three years, with more research coming in from national and international quarters that point to the role of crop residue burning in making Delhi’s air unbreathable for three weeks starting mid-October, the Centre and state governments have been held accountable for failing to control the practice.

Read | Delhi’s air quality remains poor, unlikely to change tomorrow

According to operational guidelines issued under the Ministry of Agriculture’s Straw Management Scheme released in 2018, close to 23 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in October-November on an average every year.


The practice, the report states, “shoots up the carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%. The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide also rises by 7% and 2.1% respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems”. Farm fires also produce large amounts of PM 2.5 and PM 10 (tiny toxic dust particles), the most common primary pollutants in the country.

A 2015 source-apportionment study on Delhi’s air pollution conducted by IIT-Kanpur also states that 17-26% of all particulate matter in Delhi in winters is because of biomass burning.

Blowing in the wind

One of the reasons why crop burning affects Delhi and NCR so severely is the trajectory of winds during the onset of winter. As the monsoon and easterly winds start to withdraw by the end of September, winds blowing in from the northwest direction become prevalent again, just like in the summer.

“The change in (wind) direction from easterly to northwesterly coincides with the crop-burning season. During summer, these winds carry dust from arid regions. For Delhi, the situation is bad because the base pollution is already high. This (base pollution) is much lower in parts of Haryana and Punjab,” said R K Jenamani, head of the meteorological centre at the IGI Airport.

A study by the National Physical Laboratory in 2016, which looked at the chemical composition of particulate matter, said that in winter, 46% of PM 2.5 comes to the capital via northwesterly winds from the northern part of India and Pakistan. It added that 24% of PM 2.5 is generated by Delhi-NCR, while another 30% blows in from UP, Bihar and Uttarakhand.

The Centre and state governments of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have been working on these findings, using images and software from NASA, and have found that crop residue burning is a major contributor to air pollution in October and November.

An analysis of air quality for five days between October 25 and 29 last year shows that while crop residue burning is prevalent in Punjab and Haryana, Delhi-NCR bears the brunt of it.

According to data provided by the Central Pollution Control Board, the average air quality for Delhi during this period last year was 335.6 on the air quality index (AQI), putting it in the ‘very poor’ category. The AQI in Amritsar was 299.9 (poor) and in Rohtak, it was 273 (poor). It was much higher in Ludhiana at 332.2 (very poor). Ghaziabad recorded the worst average air quality at this time at 408.8 (severe), while the average AQI at Noida stood at 365.25 (very poor).

According to air quality experts, this is because Delhi already has other grave underlying causes of pollution — such as vehicular and industrial pollution.

“Crop burning is just one of the causes of pollution in Delhi — it is seasonal, but pollution does not go away after it stops. The timing is unfortunate as winter is setting in and Diwali is around the corner. But we have to remember that Delhi has its own causes of pollution. Vehicular pollution, combustion of dirty fuel, thermal power plants and dust are all responsible as well. Over the past few years, governments have worked together to bring in new legislation. Delhi has better fuel quality now and a ban on usage of pet coke. The Eastern Peripheral Expressway is operational and the Western link should be thrown open by next month. Thirteen entry points to Delhi will get RFID readers for toll collection by November 15; since trucks are among the biggest polluters, all these actions should help. The legislation is all there, what is needed is a focus on enforcement. Along with this, there is a need to strengthen

public transport and last-mile connectivity — areas where nothing has happened,” said Sunita Narain, member of the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority.

From the fields

Meanwhile, around 270 km from Delhi, fields in Patiala are ripe for harvest.

“Telling us about the ills of crop-residue burning is of no use. We live the reality. The smoke billows into our houses as well. The government response of giving subsidies on machines, however, is inadequate,” said Bir Dalwinder Singh, a farmer from Patiala’s Kalar Majri village. He has not burnt crop residue in six years, but being a big farmer with 60 acres of farmland made it easier for him. He uses a Happy Seeder to manage paddy straw.

In parts of Haryana and Punjab, farms are already on fire and it will only get worse till the harvest and preparation for planting wheat are over by the first week of November.

Agricultural waste is burned at a paddy field in Sobha village, Patiala, on October 6. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Satellite images from NASA’s fire mapper show a concentration of fires in Haryana’s Karnal, Kaithal and Kurukshetra. In Punjab, the biggest concentration of fires is in and around Amritsar, a region that has traditionally recorded the highest number of farm fires in the state. Over 100 fines have been issued in Amritsar for crop residue burning in the past week alone.

When The Indian Express travelled to parts of Haryana and Punjab, several farmers said that the policy, which gives individual farmers a 50% subsidy and an 80% subsidy for buying equipment such as the Happy Seeder and Super-SMS combine attachment, is inadequate as these machines are used only for a few hours throughout the year.

“Even if I rent the equipment from a farmers’ collective, I will have to pay for fuel costs… the whole operation will cost Rs 5,000 per acre. I have a two-acre field. It just does not make sense for me,” said a Karnal-based farmer, who had set the crop-residue on his farm on fire.

According to officials, however, the problem is that of mindset. “Several farmers have agreed that incorporating the crop residue into the soil is going to give them better long-term returns, as it will enrich the soil with carbon and nitrogen. Burning dries out the soil and also affects its quality. Farmers then have to ensure optimum moisture before planting, and till the field three-four times. All of this costs money as well. But at the end of the day, burning it is the easier way out,” said a senior environment ministry official.

The increased focus on crop residue burning and air quality over the past three years has also meant a variety of solutions and ideas to tackle the problem. The Happy Seeder and Super-SMS combine attachment are both solutions that were worked upon by experts at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, in collaboration with farmers.

Farmers, however, said the shift to machinery cannot be the only solution. “Right now, the government is only pushing the use of machinery without understanding how to incentivise the use. Even when they give a subsidy, some money has to come out of farmers’ pockets. If they incentivise the use through yield, it will show results within three years,” said Dalwinder Singh.


As a possible solution, he suggested that governments and mandis work with farmers before the yield is harvested. “If you link the cost at which the grain is bought with the condition that farmers will not burn the residue, it will work as the biggest deterrent. Pay only part of the money for the grain at the outset, and wait to see if the farmer burns the residue or not. If he does, he loses part of the payment,” said Singh.