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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

Delhi air pollution: Farm fires choke Delhi, air quality enters danger zone

The average air quality index for Tuesday in Delhi was 401 – classified as ‘severe’, the second worst of five grades of pollution.

delhi Updated: Nov 01, 2018 12:21 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, Patiala/New Delhi
A farmer burns his vegetation in Jalandhar.
A farmer burns his vegetation in Jalandhar. (AFP Photo)

Farms in Punjab recorded a spurt in cases of crop residue burning over the weekend, satellite images show, and winds slowed down in much of north India – creating two potent conditions that resulted in the air quality in the national capital plunging on Tuesday to its worst level so far this season.

The average air quality index for the day was 401 – classified as ‘severe’, the second worst of five grades of pollution – as satellite pictures released by the National Aeronautical Space Agency (Nasa) showed a band of haze stretching from across the border in Pakistan to Agra in western Uttar Pradesh.

“It is because of unfavourable meteorological conditions that air quality has worsened. A cyclonic circulation over Odisha is blocking winds, as a result of which the wind speed [in north India] has dropped as has the ‘ventilation index’ (which determines how fast pollutants get dispersed),” a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) official said. “Mist in the morning and pollutants from stubble burning regions of neighbouring states are making the air toxic,” he added.


Farmers in Punjab and Haryana set fire to stubble left from paddy harvest in order to quickly turn their fields around for the next round of sowing, a problem that the state and Union governments have tried to solve through punitive as well as assistive measures such as subsidies on farming equipment.

Farmers said more instances of burning will be reported in coming days, especially around the festival of Diwali when fireworks will add a cocktail of toxic gases that are anyway hard to disperse due to meteorological conditions typical for this time of the year. 

“Crop stubble burning will continue up to November 15 and overlap with Diwali. Farmers cannot help it because almost 50% of the crop is left to be harvested,” said Harinder Singh Lakhowal, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).

Another farmer said the increase was inevitable since there is little time left for sowing wheat, which begins from November 10. “Small farmers cannot purchase equipment to handle straw, thus they have no other option except to burn it,” said farm leader Darshan Singh in Patiala.

An official of the Punjab pollution control board, who asked not to be named, said another spike could come around Diwali. “Many farmers will try to burn paddy straw by terming it as incidental fire,” the official added.

“The primary pollutants in Delhi’s air – PM10 and PM2.5 – shot up alarmingly over the past one week. At 8pm on Tuesday PM10 level shot up to 454ug/m3 which is 4.5 times above the safe limit of 100ug/m3. The ultra fine particles PM2.5 shot up to 256ug/m3, which was 4.2 times above the permissible limit of 60ug/m3,” said the CPCB quoted above.

According to CPCB scientists, Safar and Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), the air is likely to remain as bad for the next two days at least.

The highest recorded AQI Delhi has witnessed so far was 497 on November 6, 2016 when the city recorded its worst smog in 17 years. That day came less than a week after Diwali that year.

Even though the Delhi government is yet to issue an advisory for schools, some are taking precautionary measures such as suspending morning assemblies and restricting outdoor activities for students.

CPCB has asked people in Delhi to minimise exposure to the toxic air, and avoid strenuous exercise between November 1 and 10. Car owners have been advised to use public transport.

“Avoid major traffic intersections during rush hours. Avoid other forms of pollution such as burning incense sticks and mosquito coils indoors,” said Dr TK Joshi, a health expert of the CPCB task force.

Most of the increase in crop burning on the weekend was registered on Sunday, when 3,162 cases of fire were reported. “The farmers took advantage of a holiday when officials were not on field visits,” said Kahan Singh Pannu, Punjab’s agriculture secretary. He said senior officials now carry out inspections on holidays as well.

He, however, said this was not the reason why Delhi’s pollution levels had shot up.

Lakhowal, the BKU leader, said the state government had not done enough to help them manage crop residue. “Farmers asked for ?200 per quintal of produce as compensation to meet diesel costs of using machinery to mulch straw. The government didn’t do anything about it. The government subsidy on machinery for straw management is useless because companies have increased the market price of machinery and farmers cannot afford them…,” he said.