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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Delhi braces for toxic air as stubble burning begins in neighbouring states

Delhi’s AQI has ranged between 50 and 150 this September, which is in the ‘satisfactory’ to ‘moderate’ range. According to CPCB, clean air is defined by an AQI of less than 50.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2018 09:09 IST
Joydeep Thakur
Joydeep Thakur
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Over the past week, at least 61 cases of stubble burning have been detected in Haryana, and two in Punjab
Over the past week, at least 61 cases of stubble burning have been detected in Haryana, and two in Punjab(PTI Photo)

The season’s first cases of stubble burning — regarded by experts as one of the principal reasons behind the alarming spike in air pollution levels in the National Capital Region every winter — have been reported from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, according to two officials familiar with the developments.

Over the past week, at least 61 cases of stubble burning have been detected in Haryana, and two in Punjab, confirmed members of the state pollution control boards of the two states. They both said that satellite monitoring of burning stubble — a post-monsoon phenomenon in which farmers set fire to their paddy fields in order to get them ready for wheat sowing in November — will start from this week.

“In Haryana, all the 61 cases have been reported from Karnal district (140km from Delhi). We have lodged FIRs (first information report) in 26 cases so far. As much as Rs 90,000 has been collected from 35 farmers as fines,” said S Narayanan, member secretary of the Haryana Pollution Control Board.

“These are the first cases of crop-residue burning in Punjab this season. Two cases of stubble burning have been reported so far. While one was reported from Amritsar, the second one was detected in Patiala,” said Karunesh Garg, member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board.

Garg said that a penalty of Rs 5,000 has been imposed on the Patiala farmer for burning crop residue, but the Amritsar case is still being verified. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had imposed fines ranging between Rs 2,500 and Rs 15,000 on farmers to prevent them from burning crop residue, smoke from which was being carried towards Delhi by northwesterly winds.

“With the retreat of monsoon, the northwesterly winds start blowing in. This paves the way for a major chunk of the pollutants to reach Delhi and other cities located in the path of the winds,” said D Saha, a former head of the air quality laboratory at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

In the winter of 2017, while officials in Haryana detected around 12,657 stubble-burning cases through satellite mapping, in Punjab 43,814 cases were recorded. Chief ministers of the three states have been squabbling for the last two years over the impact of stubble burning on pollution levels in the Capital. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has insisted that it is one of the biggest reasons why the city becomes a “gas chamber” in the winter.

While Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Punjab CM Amrinder Singh say the Delhi government is exaggerating the problem, they have acknowledged that it is a matter of concern and last year demanded central assistance.

PCB’s Air Quality Index (AQI) shows that in 2017, the air quality in Delhi started dropping from the first week of October. On October 8, it fell to 247, which is considered ‘poor’ according to the grading yardstick. It then continued to deteriorate, clocking 306 (‘very poor’) on October 17, and hitting 486 (‘severe’) on November 9, a period when Delhi encountered thick smog for over a week, leading to the government declaring a public health emergency.

Delhi’s AQI has ranged between 50 and 150 this September, which is in the ‘satisfactory’ to ‘moderate’ range. According to CPCB, clean air is defined by an AQI of less than 50.

Since last year, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority has been empowered with a graded response action plan (Grap) to take emergency measures in the national capital to combat and counter pollution spikes.

Different reports by government and private researchers say that biomass burning, which includes stubble burning, causes 16% to 30% of Delhi’s pollution. Another report in August 2018 by the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) and Pune-based Automotive Research Association of India, however, said that only 4% of Delhi’s pollution during winter comes from agriculture waste burning.

Experts say that toxic fumes from fields on which crop residue has been burnt engulf the Capital, resulting in thick smog. A study published by peer-reviewed journal Springer in 2015 suggested that each ton of crop residue releases around 3kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460 kg of carbon dioxide, 199kg of ash and 2kg of sulphur dioxide.

On September 13, Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain wrote to his counterparts in Haryana and Punjab government requesting them to take preventive steps to stop stubble burning.

“In 2017, crop residue burning incidents had dropped by nearly 46% compared to 2016. This time, we are expecting the figures to drop further as several measures are being taken from increasing vigil to subsidising machines. The super straw management system has been made mandatory with combined harvesters, which would help in managing the straw left behind in the field after harvest,” said Garg.

Haryana has identified at least 30 villages in which there would be increased vigil.

Earlier this year, the Union government approved Rs 1,151 crore to manage crop residue. The fund will primarily be used to subsidise machinery required for in-situ management of the residue.

“The harvesting has just started. There is still a lot of moisture in the soil because of the rains. Incidents of crop residue have started and will pick up from the first week of October,” said an official of the Punjab pollution control board. “That will be our test.”