Hardlook: Delhi holds its breath

Delhi air pollution: With winter round the corner in the capital, extended rainfall has meant relatively cleaner air so far. But this relief could be shortlived.

A farmer setting stubble on fire in his field in Jalandhar. (Express photo)

Every winter, the national capital and surrounding NCR areas grapple with severe air pollution from multiple internal sources such as dust and vehicular emissions as well as meteorological conditions like low wind speed, temperature, and humidity. Add stubble burning to this cocktail and Delhi is enveloped in a grey haze for the entirety of winter.

While Delhi has enjoyed a relatively cleaner pre-winter period (September 1-October 15) this year compared to previous years, as per an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, experts attributed this to the extended rainfall as well a delayed paddy harvest in Punjab and Haryana. With paddy stubble burning expected to rise in the next few days, pollution too is expected to go up.

Data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

The harvest and the consequent paddy stubble burning are just starting off in Punjab. The delay this year is because of the monsoon, which withdrew later than usual. Around 28% paddy has been harvested in the state till October 22 against 41% last year on the same date.

Fire stats

Between September 1 and October 22, Punjab’s fire count was 5,772 — lower than the fire count of 11,664 till October 22 last year, the highest figure since 2016. But this year’s count is higher than that of 2019 (4,042) and 2018 (3,502). Haryana’s fire count till October 22 was 2,413, up from 2,121 last year. In 2019, the figure for the same time frame was 2,755, while it stood at 2,503 in 2018.

This is as per figures provided by Pawan Gupta, senior scientist, Earth Sciences at the Universities Space Research Association, NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre, USA, of data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), an instrument on board NASA’s Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite.


Why focus on stubble burning

In 2009, the Punjab Preservation of Sub Soil Act was enacted to arrest declining groundwater levels. This delayed the sowing date to match it with the monsoon onset to reduce the burden on ground water for irrigation. Consequently, the harvest was delayed, also reducing the time needed to manage the stubble and prepare for the next crop, said L S Kurinji, programme associate at the research institution, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). This then synchronised with the shift in wind direction in October and November which favour the carrying of smoke towards Delhi. Farm fires in the month of September don’t affect Delhi as much since the wind direction then is mostly south westerly, she said.

According to the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre (PRSC) at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, which records farm fires through satellite images, the incidence of stubble burning till October 21 are 4,327 — 3,402 took place in just nine days from October 13 to 21.

District-wise cumulative fire counts in Punjab between September 1 and October 22 indicates that Amritsar and Tarn Taran have the highest, in the range above 850. In Haryana, the districts of Kaithal and Karnal show the highest counts (over 460), maps that Gupta provided show.

“The fire count is lower this year but comparing it to last year’s figures might not work. Last year, due to the labour scarcity induced by the pandemic, more farmers adopted the ‘direct seeder’ technique which resulted in an early harvest and early burning,” said L S Kurinji, programme associate at the research institution, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

Farm fires usually begin in the last week of September, but this year the rains have delayed the harvest in Amritsar and Tarn Taran where the early maturing rice varieties are grown, Kurinji said. These districts are usually where the burning begins, she added.

The contribution of stubble burning to PM 2.5 levels in Delhi hit a high of 14% on October 16 this year, having remained below 5% till then. “The fire counts are taken and the area where these counts are is determined before we develop an emission inventory due to these fire counts. Then we run the model to figure out what the contribution from the fire counts is,” said Gufran Beig, founder project director, SAFAR.


Efforts are on to help farmers switch to the Pusa bio-decomposer, developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) to aid the decomposition of crop residue, which is being touted as a cleaner alternative than setting fire to fields.

The Delhi government has begun spraying the solution on harvested paddy fields, covering 4,000 acres out of a total of nearly 14,000 acres under paddy cultivation.

Indramani Mishra, head of the Agricultural Engineering Department, IARI, said the Punjab government has procured the decomposer through a licensee to cover around 3,000 hectares while the Haryana government will be covering around 1 lakh acres. The UP government has also procured from a licensee for 10 lakh acres.

A licensed private company also plans on providing the decomposer for 3 lakh acres in Haryana and 2 lakh acres in Punjab for free as part of their CSR activity, Mishra said.

Going by data available on the website of the Government of Punjab’s Department of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, an estimated area of 31.49 lakh hectares was cultivated with paddy in 2020-21.

However, only a small section of farmers will be using the decomposer, said Harinder Singh Lakhowal, General Secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union, Punjab.

“There isn’t enough time to spray the decomposer and wait for it to work,” Lakhowal said, explaining why farmers were unlikely to use it. Some farmers might want to grow vegetables between paddy and wheat, he pointed out. Besides, the predominant variety of rice being grown in Punjab is PUSA-44 — this one has a higher yield, he said, but it is also the ‘late’ variety, which is harvested later.

Alternatives to both the decomposer and burning include a ‘happy seeder,’ which cuts the straw and sows the seeds for the rabi crop at the same time. Even with the subsidy, it remains out of reach for many farmers, Lakhowal said.

Manmohan Kalia Joint Director, Farm Machinery Wing, Punjab Agriculture Department and Nodal Officer, Stubble Management, Punjab, said, “Punjab is going to have over 1 lakh machines in the state by this paddy harvesting season. At present, 86,000 machines are available which are sufficient for stubble management machinery because this is not the peak season, which starts in the beginning of November. Farmers, however, are not availing these machines because of increasing diesel costs and other factors.”

‘Burning stubble easier’

Despite spending over Rs 1,000 crore on subsidised machinery to manage stubble in Punjab — which produces around 20 million paddy stubble every year — burning straw across the state continues, with the Majha region on top of the chart currently. In Tarn Taran and Amritsar, which fall in the region, burning fields can be spotted every few 100 metres in around half a dozen blocks. The two districts are also responsible for 43.4% of the total stubble burning in the state till October 21.

Farmers here sow short duration varieties of paddy (non-basmati) and basmati rice crops. These were harvested between September 10 and October 20. For them, stubble burning is convenient and cost effective.

In Jandiala Guru, Tarsikka, Majitha and Ajnala blocks in Amritsar and Khadur Sahib, and Chohla Sahib blocks in Tarn Taran, farmers sow vegetables like matar (green peas) and table potatoes after harvesting paddy. Peas and potatoes are sown between October 1-20 in these blocks.

Jeet Singh, a farmer from Tarn Taran, said, “I harvested the short-duration variety of paddy last week on 5 acres of land. I now have to sow the pea crop; sowing time was up to October 20 which I cannot delay. I was left with just 5-6 days to clear my fields because for sowing vegetables, you need a clean field. It is not like wheat which can be sown in standing stubble with happy seeder or super seeder. It takes at least 5-6 rounds to clear the stubble and the high cost of diesel means machines are out of reach for small, marginal, and semi-medium farmers. We are left with no option but to set our fields on fire, even though it harms the soil and creates air pollution.”

Peas are a 65-day crop, which is harvested by the second week of December. Farmers then sow another crop with a late variety of wheat or Rabi season crops.

Assembly elections and ongoing protests against the three farm laws also mean that action against farmers who set their fields on fire will be elusive. A senior administrative officer in Amritsar said with elections due in a few months, they cannot take any stringent action against farmers.

Till October 21, environment compensation to the tune of Rs 16.46 lakh was imposed, of which only Rs 7,500 could be recovered. No FIRs are being registered this year.

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