After a bumper paddy crop, the fields are on fire in Punjab and Haryana, polluting the air with hazardous particles.
Strangely, there wasn’t much hue and cry till a thick blanket of smog — a mixture of smoke and fog — enveloped Delhi, making city residents breathless. It’s the farmers of the two food-bowl states who are being blamed for the sudden deterioration in air quality and smog in the entire northern region over the past week. They are indulging in the banned practice of burning of paddy stubble to clear their fields at no cost for the next crop. If the impact is being felt hundreds of kilometres away in Delhi, one can imagine the havoc air pollution is playing with the health of people of the two states at this time of the year.
The situation created by the age-old practice of setting crop residue afire is alarming. A study carried out by the Punjab Remote Sensing Institute, using satellites, shows that the state’s farmers burn 76%, roughly 150 lakh tonnes, of their paddy straw every season.
According to experts, one tonne of straw, on being burnt, releases about 3 kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460 kg of carbon dioxide, 199 kg of ash and 2 kg of sulphur dioxide.
“The burning of 130 to 150 lakh tonnes of paddy straw in a span of 20 days generates pollution equal to what the state industry generates in a year,” said a Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) scientist.
The resultant haze and low-hanging clouds of smoke, exacerbated by low temperature and slow wind speed, are a lethal health hazard, posing serious risks to people with breathing troubles, allergies, asthma and other respiratory disorders, particularly those living in proximity to paddy areas. Constant and high exposure to air pollution is known to lead to hospitalisation for asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and lung diseases, besides increasing the risk of a stroke.
Ban remains on paper
Despite the adverse impact of this bi-annual practice on health and environment, thousands of farmers continue to light matchsticks with impunity to burn their wheat and paddy stubble post-harvest over large swathes of land across the two states year after year. And, all the warnings, threats of prosecution, penalties and “out-of-the-box ideas” have proved ineffective in curbing the menace.
The problem is best illustrated by numbers (see the infographic). In Jalandhar district, where 1.6 lakh hectares were under paddy this season, 80% of the farmers burn their crop residue to free their land for the next crop. The district authorities had issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) for a period of two months, but without any effect. Though crop burning is rampant, only three cases have been registered against erring farmers till date.
Tarn Taran district agriculture officer Ravel Singh said farmers were burning paddy straw in 55% of the total 1.75 lakh hectares which were under paddy. In Haryana, paddy straw is widely burnt in the farms of Karnal, Kurukshetra and Panipat. The resultant smog has resulted in reduced visibility for motorists on the bustling National Highway-1 in early morning hours and late evenings. The situation is no different in Hisar and Fatehabad districts. Haryana Space Application Centre (HARSAC) head and environment scientist RS Hooda said a detailed survey was conducted on the request of the state pollution control board in 2013.
“We found that farmers of Kaithal, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Fatehabad burnt 80% of the stubble for paddy and wheat. After the government banned stubble burning in 2014, farmers reduced it up to 14%,” he said. HARSAC is conducting another survey in the area.
Political will missing
Flagrant burning of crop residue notwithstanding, there has hardly been any effort to act against farmers violating the ban. While an official functionary in Haryana attributed the problem to lack of “political will” of successive governments, the play-it-safe strategy is much more apparent in Punjab.
The beleaguered SAD-BJP alliance, which has been grappling with one crisis after another, appears to be in no mood to risk another backlash from the farming community, which is already seething with rage after the whitefly attack on the cotton crop and a crash in market rates of basmati.
“Lack of action is responsible for the continued stubble burning. The farmers are taking advantage of leniency and setting crop residue on fire without considering the threat to human lives or soil health,” an agriculture officer in Jalandhar said.
While the state authorities talk of tackling the problem by creating awareness and educating farmers, it is done more out of political compulsion. Their motivation is not spots such as Amritsar, where the awareness campaign and threat of action seems to have shown positive results.
“We have not succeeded in fully checking it, but there has been a marked change in the attitude of farmers,” said Amritsar district chief agriculture officer Balwinder Singh Chhina. Reports of stubble burning in the district have mostly come from the vegetable-growing areas of Jandiala, Tarsikka and Majitha.