Updated: October 24, 2016 8:27:49 am
On one side of National Highway 1, a heap of dry leaves is up in flames. A few kilometres ahead, farmers in fields are burning the refuse left behind after threshing the paddy crop. The air is thick with smoke along parts of the highway in Haryana.
Delhi’s annual pollution crisis has started — and it will only get worse. The large-scale burning of agricultural remains — the stalks left in the ground after the crop is harvested — is expected to begin in earnest in the first week of November. Farmers say the bulk of burning happens in the first two weeks of November, as the entire paddy crop has not been harvested yet. This is bad news for the air quality in Delhi.
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One only needs to visit some villages in Sonepat and Panipat near National Highway 1 to realise the extent of the problem posed by burning of agricultural stubble. And to understand why farmers do it.
“When we used manual labour for harvesting, the stubble was easier to deal with. We would just till the farm again and the stubble would be mixed into soil. Now that we have started using machines to harvest, 8 -10 inches of stalks are left behind and these are difficult to deal with. Getting manual labourers — mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — is expensive, time consuming and difficult, so everyone does it by machine,” said Kherati Lal, 65, a farmer in Haryana’s Panchi Gujra village near Murthal.
The easiest thing in such a situation, he says, is to set fire to his farms to clear the stubble. Except, this is banned by the government.
“We would put 2 litres of kerosene and set fire to the whole thing. End of story. Now we have to bring in machines to turn the soil and cut and bury the stubble. We have to water this and run a tractor over it thrice to make sure it decays properly. The government has started keeping a strict check on fires now, so we burn only the stalks that come out along with the rice crop. It’s a small quantity,” he said.
But even small quantities being burnt on each farm make for an air pollution disaster.
As per officials at the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), 60,000 acres of land in Punjab is under cultivation of paddy. In Haryana, paddy is cultivated on around 30,000 acres. This produces 32 million tonnes of paddy straw.
According to the first source apportionment study of Delhi’s air pollution by IIT Kanpur, about 30 per cent of pollution in Delhi is because of biomass burning, which includes agricultural, leaf and garbage burning.
Several studies since have confirmed this. A recent study by scientists at the National Environment Engineering Research Institute said that 60 per cent of Delhi’s particulate matter (PM) 2.5 is contributed by neighbouring states. Of this 60 per cent, half is contributed by Punjab and Haryana.
Despite efforts to curb such fires, farms in Haryana and Punjab have been going up in flames for the last two weeks, according to NASA’s fire mapper. The map also shows that Punjab is seeing more fires, especially near Amritsar, as compared to Haryana.
The effect on air quality is already visible. According to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, the air quality has dipped since September 25 — something that can partly be attributed to a dip in wind speed and partly to the beginning of the harvest season.
An analysis of the air quality on the National Air Quality Index shows that this October is, on average, more polluted than the last. Between October 6 and October 20, at R K Puram station, the average air quality was poor during both years. But this year, the value was 261 as opposed to 257 last year, the data shows.
Meanwhile, with the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court and the National Green Tribunal banning all such agricultural fires, state governments have started feeling the heat.
The Haryana government has already issued almost 700 challans and collected lakhs in fines for farm fires this year. The progress in Punjab has been slower, with some officials suggesting this could have something to do with the upcoming assembly elections.
But leader of Opposition in Haryana assembly and INLD leader Abhay Singh Chautala has criticised the decision of the BJP government in Haryana to impose a fine on farmers, and demanded that they be reimbursed.
“Removal of stubble from fields is expensive. A farmer cannot afford to pay Rs 10,000 per acre from his pocket for this. In several countries, machines are available using which stubble can be cut, tied up and sent to factories for use. The Haryana government has three such machines lying defunct,” he claimed.
Ram Niwas Gautam, 60, a resident of Manana Village near Panipat, said, “I have a 4-acre farm. A farmer can’t afford to buy a machine to get rid of the waste and hiring manual labour is out of question as they are rarely available and charge a lot of money. Labour contractors charge around
Rs 20,000; where do we get that kind of money? Only the big farmers can afford it.”
According to experts, the governments need a mix of prosecution and incentives to deal with the problem. In Punjab, for example, farmers are selling the straw to waste-to-energy plants for power generation, and a small amount is being sold to mushroom farms to use as substrate.
“Farmers should be paid Rs 1,000 per acre under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana so they can shun the practice of burning paddy straw. They should be given subsidies for buying Rotavator machines that help cut and mix agricultural stubble with soil. We need to understand why the farmers burn stubble and then deal with the basic problem,” said Centre for Science and Environment director general Sunita Narain.
*Many orders, little change
Supreme Court mandated panel, Environment Pollution Control Authority, directs Punjab, Haryana to ensure complete ban on burning of agricultural stubble by 2014. States asked to promote alternate uses of paddy straw, such as power generation.
NGT tells Ministry of Agriculture to hold meeting with Punjab, Haryana, Central Pollution Control Board, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences and prepare guidelines to control pollution from burning of agricultural remnants in fields.
NGT orders fine for burning stubble. Its order states:
*Land holders with less than 2 acres to pay
Rs 2,500/- per incident
*Rs 5,000 for land holders with 2 and 5 acres
*Rs 15,000 for land holders with area more than 5 acres of land
Delhi HC issues orders to governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan to prevent burning of agricultural stubble in their states. On October 4, Delhi government writes to environment ministers of some neighbouring states in this regard.
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