Delhi haze: When farm fires poison the capital’s air

Updated on Oct 05, 2016 02:04 PM IST
Whether Delhi breaths less toxic air this winter will depend on how effectively policies put in place over the past one year are implemented
Despite a ban, a farmer burns paddy straw in a field in Patiala. The Delhi government has written to Punjab and Rajasthan to not allow the practice of burning crops this year and look for other alternatives.(Bharat Bhushan/HT Photo)
Despite a ban, a farmer burns paddy straw in a field in Patiala. The Delhi government has written to Punjab and Rajasthan to not allow the practice of burning crops this year and look for other alternatives.(Bharat Bhushan/HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

This winter season when Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal pleads for votes in Punjab, the Capital’s residents will be pleading the neighbouring states for clean air. Each year, farm fires in the surrounding states raise particulate matter in the city’s air by more than six times the normal limit.

The air quality in Delhi has already started deteriorating. Last weekend recorded the worst air quality in the past three months. Last week, Delhi Environment Minister Imran Hussain wrote to the chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana to not allow crop residue burning in the states.

Over 25% PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter that chokes the airways) and 17% of PM10 in winters in Delhi’s air come from burning of agriculture waste in the fields around the city, shows a study done by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The fires start in mid October when farmers prepare to sow wheat by clearing the fields of residue from rice harvest. Among Delhi’s neighbours, Punjab is the most polluting, followed by Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

“Unlike wheat straw that is used as cattle feed after the spring harvest, the rice straw from October harvest is not of much use. Some alternative uses are being promoted by the government but as compared to the production of rice straw, these are too few,” said Ridhima Gupta, PG fellow with the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, who studied the economics of farm fires in Punjab.

India produces 500-550 million tonnes of crop residue every year, with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana being the highest producers. A 2012 study estimated that Punjab and Haryana burnt about 80% of rice residue, while Uttar Pradesh burnt 25% of it. The three states burnt 23% of wheat and 25% of sugarcane trash in the field, the study said.

Though Punjab and Haryana banned crop-residue burning in 2013 and 2003, respectively, farmers continue to burn the residue. These fires negated the benefits of the odd-even scheme introduced by the Delhi government in April this year. An analysis of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and NASA’s satellite images by the Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that the level of PM2.5 and PM10 came down in the first week of odd-even 2 but spiked in the second, which coincided with the farm fires in Punjab and Haryana.

Harvesting trouble

The use of ‘combine harvesters’ among the relatively affluent farmers in these states is partly to blame as they leave close to 80% of crop straw on the field, most of which ends up getting burnt. Since the time between harvesting rice and sowing of wheat is typically 15-20 days, farmers prefer burning the straw as the quickest, easiest and the most economical way to clear their fields rather than using it for soil enrichment or harvesting it for any other purpose.

In December 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued a series of directions to Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to stop farm fires. It asked the states to impose a ban on farm fires, penalise farmers who violate the ban, subsidise machines that remove crop straw from the fields, incentivise farmers to collect the straw for alternative use, and put in place a satellite-based system for real-time monitoring of farm fires.

Sources in the Punjab government say the state is going slow on penal action against farmers as it is an election year and farmers comprise an influential vote bank. Since the paddy harvest season in 2015, the Punjab Pollution Control Board has recommended action against 19 farmers for violating norms.

Haryana, which banned crop residue burning in 2003, started penalising farmers after the NGT directions last year. The Haryana Pollution Control Board has fined 46 farmers over the past nine months and has given subsidies to farmers through various departments to buy ‘happy seeder’ machines that plough and sow simultaneously while mixing the standing crop residue into the soil.

Way ahead

The Punjab government claims “significant” progress has been made to incentivise farmers. They have been given 766 machines for disposal of paddy stubble on 50% subsidy, 280 happy seeder machines, 305 paddy straw chopper shredder, 74 gyro-rakes, and 107 bailers for packing of stubble.

Seven biomass-based power generating plants that use rice straws have been established and three more are coming up. With these measures and awareness drives, paddy burning reduced by 39% between 2013 and 2015, shows the Punjab government data.

HT’’s Air Quality map | To track the pollution levels in your city or area, use this real-time map:

“Awareness drives have brought the farm fire-affected area down by 21 per cent,” says Ramesh Hooda, chief scientist with the Haryana Space Application Centre. “In 2013, two lakh hectare out of the 11 lakh hectare paddy area was affected by farm fires. In 2015, while the paddy area has increased to 12 lakh hectare, the fire affected area had come down to 1.6 lakh hectare.”

While the progress is encouraging, Delhi will experience significant change in air quality only when the fires completely stop. “The fires will stop completely when the cutting of straw is more profitable for farmers than burning it. Many farmers believe that mixing the straw in the soil will harm their crops. They need to be educated and the happy seeder technology needs to be made more accessible,” said IBM’s Gupta.

Burning crop residue: Crime, punishment, incentives

  • Banned crop residue burning in 2013 under the Air (Prevention and control of pollution) Act 1981.
  • PPCB has recommended action against 19 farmers for violating norms
  • The government has given 766 machines for disposal of paddy stubble to the farmers on 50% subsidy
  • 280 happy seeder machines, 305 paddy straw chopper shredder, 74 gyro-rakes, and 107 bailers for packing of stubble have also been given to farmers
  • Seven biomass based power generating plants functional in state and 3 more are coming up
  • Banned burning of crop residue in 2003 under the IPC
  • 46 farmers have been fined in 2016
  • ‘Happy seeders’ that simultaneously ploughs and sows while mixing standing-crop residue into the soil sold to farmers at subsidized rates
  • Small holder farmers (with less than 2 acres) fined Rs 2,500 per incident, medium farmers (2-5 acres) fined Rs 5000, and big farmers (more than 5 acres) will pay Rs 15,000 per incident
  • State governments will provide free-of-cost machines for disposing crop residue to small farmers, for Rs 5000 to medium farmers and for Rs 15,000 to big farmers
  • District magistrates must constitute a special team to monitor and ensure there are no fires
Source: NGT, Punjab and Haryana governments

(With Gurpreet Nibber in Punjab and Rajesh Moudgil in Haryana)

This is Part 3 of our ongoing series ‘Save our Lungs’, which looks at how to combat pollution in Delhi.


    Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers.He no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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