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Farm fires in Punjab, Haryana appear on Nasa ‘red dot’ map

Scientists and environmentalists have warned that this year, farm fires in north India are likely to be more intense than in previous years, considering the delayed monsoon withdrawal from the region.
Farm fires are a major source of pollution in Delhi-NCR.(HT File Photo)
Published on Oct 06, 2021 02:36 AM IST
By Soumya Pillai, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The first instances of stubble burning have started appearing in parts of Pakistan, Punjab and Haryana, satellite data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) showed.

Scientists and environmentalists have warned that this year, farm fires in north India are likely to be more intense than in previous years, considering the delayed monsoon withdrawal from the region. This, they said, is likely to worsen the capital’s bad air problem.

NASA’s fire map showed on Tuesday that ‘red dots’, representing large-scale fires in an area, have started appearing in parts of Pakistan, Punjab and Haryana. The numbers fell by evening, which scientists attributed to cloud cover and rain in the region.

On Monday, too, large numbers of these ‘red dots’ were seen in these states, with the majority of fires being concentrated in districts such as Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Faridabad. In Pakistan, these fires were seen mostly around Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sargodha.

NASA data shows that between September 1 and October 1, the number of stubble burning counts in Punjab and Haryana has seen a consistent spike. For instance, in Punjab, nearly 40-50 fire counts started appearing between September 19 and 21. This reached 155 on September 26, around 220 on September 29, and finally climbed to 255 on October 1.


In Haryana, while the numbers were comparatively less, a similar trend was seen. Around eight to nine stubble fires were seen between September 9 and 16, which went up to 35 on October 1.

Scientists warned that this was just the beginning of a season of intense stubble fires, which could lead to a drastic impact on the region’s air quality. They explained that because of the late withdrawal of monsoon from northwest India (monsoon withdrawal will begin from the region from October 6, according to forecasts by the India Meteorological Department), farmers have a small window to harvest and clear their fields for the next sowing season. This, they said, could force more farmers to use residue burning since it is a quicker way to ready the field.

“Consistent cloud and rain over India is both delaying agricultural waste burning and limiting the detection of these fires by satellite. Although the fire season this year is delayed compared to the last few years because of the delayed monsoon withdrawal, stubble burning is increasing and soon, regional air quality will get a hit as soon as rain goes away,” said Pawan Gupta, a research scientist at the Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research (GESTAR), Universities Space Research Association (USRA).

NASA scientists also said that going by the stubble burning pattern, Punjab and Haryana could record up to 16,500 stubble fires between October and November.

“Sixteen-day satellite data suggests a consecutive year of large rice crop production of nearly 12.6 million tonnes in Punjab and Haryana. Under a traditional burning scenario, it can potentially lead to up to 16,500 fire occurrences post-harvest—October and November—equivalent to 2020 levels,” said Hiren Jethva, an aerosol remote sensing scientist at USRA.

Starting mid-October, as the wind direction in the region changes, an increased number of stubble fires in the agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana results in plumes of smoke being carried to Delhi and adjoining cities, reducing air quality to dangerous levels.

Farmers in Punjab said that while fires have started in some parts, harvest will start in full swing from October 10.

“The harvest for early varieties of paddy starts around October 1 itself, but most farmers sow both early and regular varieties together in the same field and if they set one part on fire it can hamper the rest of the field. So, most farmers wait and set the fields on fire in one go,” said Harinder Singh Lakhowal from Bharatiya Kisan Union.

In an affidavit, the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change informed the Supreme Court that in 2020, Punjab saw 76,590 incidents of stubble burning compared to 52,991 in 2019—an increase of 44.5%. Haryana reported 5,000 stubble fires as opposed to 6,652 in 2019, according to the government affidavit.

Senior officials of Delhi’s environment department said that while the fires being spotted on NASA satellite is currently impacting Delhi’s air, once the wind direction changes around mid-October, the capital’s air quality will start witnessing a fall.

“We have been monitoring the NASA satellite data and we have observed that the number of fire dots over Pakistan, Punjab and Haryana are increasing. We are anticipating a large number of fires this season, and this could severely impact Delhi’s air quality,” a senior environment department official said on condition of anonymity.

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