Farm fires increase in Punjab, Haryana despite assurances
New Delhi/Karnal/Chandigarh: This year, the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana has gone unabated primarily because of the reluctance of the local administration to act against offenders due to ongoing farmer protests in the two states.
The result: Delhi and its neighbouring areas are grappling with deteriorating air quality that could aggravate the Covid-19 pandemic in the region, officials said.
On Thursday, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh claimed that Delhi’s air pollution problem was because of local factors, but data from the Punjab University’s Remote Sensing Centre, Ludhiana, shows a three-fold spike in stubble burning incidents in Punjab as compared to 2019 (3,996 incidents from September 21 to October 15 as compared 1,266 in same period last year), with just six farmers booked for farm fires. These numbers are higher than the India Meteorological Department’s own, but are directionally similar -- that too points to a three-fold increase in farm fires in Punjab and Haryana this harvest season.
Haryana has done slightly better that Punjab with 71% more stubble burning incidents for same period. According to Haryana Space Applications Centre (HARSAC), until October 15, 1,835 active fire locations (AFL) were reported from the state against 1,072 during the same period last year.
Officials in the two states also said on condition of anonymity said stubble burning started at the time farmer bodies were protesting against three farm bills approved in the winter session of Parliament and any action against the stubble burners could have aggravated the situation on the ground.
“We have to act with caution as tempers were high,” explained a Punjab government official, when asked that why not many farmers were booked for stubble burning. A Haryana government official added that there was reluctance to act against the farmers as it could have added “fuel” to the farmers’ ongoing agitation.
Farmers burn paddy stubble to clear the fields for sowing of winter wheat crop, 90% of which is procured by the government to sustain the Public Distribution System (PDS). The fires send fumes into air causing massive pollution across the entire northern plains.
Almost all of south Punjab, which includes districts such as Bathinda, Mansa and Fazilka, and Haryana’s Rohtak, Sonepat and Panipat districts, abutting Delhi, showed a spurt in farm fires on the fire map of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration .
According to air pollution experts, the north easterly winds brings pollutants from farm fires in the two states and smoke, which mix with local emissions causing a spike in pollution levels in the National Capital Region. “We are seeing a spurt as local emission load in area within a 70 km radius of Delhi is also very high,” said an air pollution scientist at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, who asked not to be named. He added that the stubble burning has resulted in an increase in pollution levels across northern plains.
On Friday, several NCR towns such as Baghpat, Rohtak, Faridabad, and Gurugram reported poor to very poor air quality. This was actually a marginal improvement from Thursday, as wind speed improved helping in quicker dispersal of pollutants. Delhi has been in the poor or very poor category for the past week.
There are several reasons for the spurt in farm fires this year.
The paddy harvest season this year in the two food bowl states of India started earlier than in 2019 because of long dry period that started in early September. Last year, the monsoon rains lashed the northern plains till October 15 delaying the peak harvest season to the first week of October. This year, harvest started from September 18 and procurement from September 26.
Paddy procurement commenced in Punjab and Haryana from September 26 due to early arrival of the crop, while in other states, it started from October 1, said a food ministry statement. Until Thursday 4.358 million tonnes of paddy had arrived in the markets of Punjab, exactly double of the last year’s corresponding arrivals In Haryana also, the paddy procurement is double of last year.
The early harvest resulted in an early spike in farm fires. According to Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) the period from September 21 to October 5, saw a five-time increase in farm fires as compared to 2019. Haryana reported double the number of farm fires for same period.
S Narayanan, member secretary Haryana State Pollution Control Board said the rise in farm fires was because of early harvest. “We have issued advisories to district collectors to take action against offenders,” he said.
Punjab pollution board member secretary Krunesh Garg said that it is too early to reach a conclusion even though the present scenario was worrisome. “I am sure the current season will end with fewer number of cases as compared to previous year,” he said, adding that over 50,000 cases of stubble fires were reported from the state in the last two years.
The reluctance of the two states to act against farmers shows in the number of those booked for stubble burning this year. In Punjab, only six farmers have been booked against 1,706 booked in 2019. According to officials, environment cess of Rs 21 lakh has been collected from 806 farmers as compared to 14,200 on whom this penalty was imposed last year. “Police is not taking any chances especially when farm bodies are agitating in state over new farm laws enacted in the Parliament last month,” said a senior agriculture department official.
In Haryana, the number of farmers booked this year is about 60% less than last year. Even as 374 incidents of farm fires were reported from Karnal district, only two FIRs have been registered and around 30 farmers have been fined for Rs 68000.
Local officials also said as ground level functionaries were busy in procurement of the record paddy harvest in the two states, the monitoring of farm fires was poor. Agriculture and revenue department officials are deployed to check farm fires but this year because of record harvest they were posted for quick procurement. “Farmers were protesting and procurement was becoming a political issue,” said a Haryana agriculture department official, pointing at farmer protest in Kurukshetra over delay in paddy procurement.
But, then some farmers also cleared their fields quickly for growing vegetables which are fetching a good price in retail markets.
“The increase in the prices of vegetables in retail markets have lured the farmers to burn the crop waste and prepare the fields to grow vegetables such as potato, cauliflower, reddish, peas and carrot,” said Rajiv Kumar, a farmer from Haryana’s Shahsbad.
A farmer of Punjab’s Bathinda district, Paramjit Singh, said he has already cleared farms to grow cabbage, which is fetching a good price in the market. The price of cauliflower in Delhi’s Azadpur market on Friday was between Rs 30 to Rs 60 per kilogram and for potato it was between Rs 17 to Rs 40 per kilogram, about 40% higher than the price in the same period last year.
However, officials in two states claimed that subsidised machines were provided to farmers for stubble management.
Garg said the farmers were using machines supplied by the government for crop residue management to clear stubble and said the impact would be visible in the coming days. Punjab’s former secretary agriculture Kahan Singh Pannu, said 23,500 machines were supplied to the farmers this season out of which 15,000 are super seeders. “With this machine crop residue management would become very easy,” said Pannu who retired on August 31, after working on stubble management since 2010.
But some officials admitted that only big farmers were getting benefit of the subsdised machines. “Providing subsidised implements will not help as most of the subsidies are being taken by the big farmers and the benefit does not reach small farmers. The government must reach out to small farmers who are around 80% (of all farmers),” said a senior official of Haryana agriculture department, requesting anonymity.