A delayed harvest of wheat crop in Punjab and Haryana and most pollution control board officials deployed on election duty has led to a spike in crop residue burning across the two states.
NASA’s fire mapper, which uses satellites to map the number of active fires in a region, shows that the instances of fires in Punjab and Haryana have sharply risen over the last week. The spike in crop burning comes despite several orders from the state government, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the National Green Tribunal, which have directed that farmers burning crop residue be fined based on the area under cultivation.
“Most of the officials who are responsible for implementing these orders are on election duty. How do we implement the orders… Awareness exercises have been undertaken and farmers told about the bad effects of burning crop residue,” said Kahan Singh Pannu, Punjab Agriculture Secretary.
Worrying new trend
Crop burning, which compounds the air pollution problem in the NCR, is usually seen during October-November. Burning wheat stubble in April-May this year is a worrying new trend that could affect the NCR’s air quality.
While the wheat crop is harvested usually in the last two weeks of April, this year, however, the season has been delayed by around three weeks.
According to sources, the implementation of orders is also lax as Punjab goes to polls on May 19 and the government is not keen on alienating voters by fining them just ahead of polling day.
Be it Patiala, the home district of Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh, Sangrur, the stronghold of AAP leader Bhagwant Mann, or Bathinda, the seat of Union Akali minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, large tracts of farmland are being set on fire. It is the same in Rohtak, Jhajjhar and Sonipat districts of Haryana as well.
“We are following it up with the Agriculture Department. There are fewer incidents of stubble burning this season as compared to the corresponding season last year,” said Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) chairman Satwinder Singh Marwaha.
However, another government functionary said there cannot be a comparison as the harvesting of wheat started late this year compared to last year. “The comparison can be done only after the harvesting is complete,” the functionary said. “We are paying the price of democracy as no one wants to take action on farmers in the midst of the election season.”
The delay in harvest means farmers don’t have as much time to prepare their fields for the next crop. While crop residue burning has become a common phenomenon in the two states since the introduction of combine harvesters, paddy residue burning, which happens in October-November – is more prevalent.
While paddy residue contains silica and is unfit for use as fodder for cattle, the wheat residue is widely used as fodder. While farmers burn both the paddy stalk and straw, only the stalk of the wheat crop is set on fire.
According to Pannu, farmers have already separated the straw that will be used as fodder. “What is being set on fire now is just the stalk,” he said. After the wheat is harvested, the stubble is turned into cattle feed with the help of a machine. With the cost of inputs on the rise, some farmers avoid the additional expenditure on this machine.
A farmer who set wheat stubble on fire in Deon village in Bathinda district said, “Last year, the government had asked us not to burn paddy straw promising to provide straw management machines. But the machine never arrived and we had to set our fields on fire. The government should give us compensation if they want us to choose alternate methods for getting rid of the straw.”
Jamhoori Kisan Sabha Punjab president Satnam Singh Ajnala said, “We are against stubble burning. But, the fact is that all the wheat fields around the place I am sitting have been set on fire. The government should give some money per acre to the farmers to enable them to try alternate ways.”