Experts fear last-minute spike in farm fires this year
- Other scientists that HT spoke to also said these post-monsoon showers were only delaying the stubble fires in agrarian states and were not necessarily an indication of the season seeing a cumulative drop in stubble count.
The late withdrawal of monsoon and the off-season showers over north-west India might have temporarily helped Delhi’s air to shake off the adverse impact of stubble fires, but with the next crop season fast approaching, environmentalists and weather experts have warned that the stubble fire count could rise fast in the coming days, and Delhi might be in for some intense pollution spells soon.
After heavy, widespread rain over parts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi over the past two days, satellite images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) showed an increase in “red dots”—representing stubble fires—over the region.
The impact of this high number of fires was also seen in Delhi’s air on Wednesday, as the air quality index climbing to 221, into the “poor” zone once again, after a welcome spell of good air days. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) analysis showed that high stubble fires were the primary reason behind the fall in air quality.
According to Union ministry of earth science’s air quality monitoring centre, the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar), 746 fires were reported on Wednesday from Punjab and Haryana, which contributed 12% of Delhi’s PM 2.5 (particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 micrometres) levels.
Pawan Gupta, a research scientist at the Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research (GESTAR), Universities Space Research Association, said fire counts could be low because farmers cannot set wet fields on fire, and while the stubble season is delayed this year, the number of fires is catching up with that of previous years.
“From Tuesday, we are seeing from satellite images that after the clouds cleared up, smoke is visible over north-west India. Get ready for more intense burning and smoky skies in the coming weeks,” said Gupta.
IMD scientist Ashim Mitra also tweeted satellite images of stubble fire smoke enveloping north-west India on Wednesday. He said these fires may have not been detected because of the cloud cover and rain, but after the rainfall stopped from Tuesday, the smoke started reappearing on satellite images.
“A fall in temperature and winds may bring pollutants from these fires into neighbouring states,” Mitra said.
Other scientists that HT spoke to also said these post-monsoon showers were only delaying the stubble fires in agrarian states and were not necessarily an indication of the season seeing a cumulative drop in stubble count.
They also said with the IMD forecasting more rain in parts of Punjab and Haryana on October 23-24, the window before the next crop sowing will only shorten, leading to more stubble fires and intense pollution in the Capital in the coming weeks.
“There is a western disturbance passing over the region on October 23-24 and under its impact, parts of Punjab and Haryana is likely to receive heavy rainfall. Delhi-NCR is only likely to see cloudy skies and isolated, light showers,” said Mahesh Palawat, vice-president (meteorology and climate change), Skymet.
An analysis by Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) shows that between September 1 and October 19, over 4,345 farm fires were recorded in Punjab, and 2,034 farm fires in Haryana. Experts said while the number of farm fires is lower this year compared to 2020, it is higher compared to the corresponding periods in 2018 and 2019.
“This year’s farm fires have been low so far, compared to the kharif season last year because of the delayed harvest on account of the extended monsoon. However, it is important to note that the year 2020 is an anomaly due to multiple reasons, such as significant adoption of the direct seeding technique for paddy sowing due to labour scarcity on account of Covid-19 pandemic. This resulted in an early harvest and an early and extended stubble burning season last year. Farm fires reported in Punjab so far are higher compared to the corresponding periods in 2018 and 2019,” said LS Kurinji, programme associate, CEEW.
She added, “That said, the delay due to extended monsoon will only add to the time crunch faced by farmers in managing stubble and preparing the fields for the next crops.”