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Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

Fire has started: Farm stubble burning, Delhi may get the choke soon

The first of the farm fires come less than a week after the Punjab and Haryana high court ruled that the two states cannot fine farmers for burning crop residue, a practice that is common in the autumn season when fields need to be quickly cleared of summer harvests to make way for winter crop sowing.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2019 00:44 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
New Delhi/Chandigarh
Hundreds of instances of farm fires have been recorded in Punjab and Haryana, forcing officials in the national capital as well as in the adjoining states to consider measures. Photo by Manoj Dhaka/HindustanTime
Hundreds of instances of farm fires have been recorded in Punjab and Haryana, forcing officials in the national capital as well as in the adjoining states to consider measures. Photo by Manoj Dhaka/HindustanTime
         

Hundreds of instances of farm fires have been recorded in Punjab and Haryana, forcing officials in the national capital as well as in the adjoining states to consider measures such as staggered office timings and impounding of old harvesting machines in a bid to stave off an air quality crisis that has become an annual phenomenon in the region.

The first of the farm fires come less than a week after the Punjab and Haryana high court ruled that the two states cannot fine farmers for burning crop residue, a practice that is common in the autumn season when fields need to be quickly cleared of summer harvests to make way for winter crop sowing.

“Discussed measures to reduce air pollution and congestion in Delhi. Requested to explore amongst other measures, option of staggered opening/closing hours of offices and other establishments to reduce congestion and resultant air pollution,” Delhi Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Anil Baijal said in a tweet on Wednesday after a meeting with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to discuss plans to tackle pollution.

“Delhi will be facing a challenge to maintain its air quality due to crop stubble burning from neighbouring states and bursting of firecrackers during Diwali. Delhi has taken several steps to reduce pollution during this time including the odd-even scheme. The government will definitely implement his suggestion on staggered working hours,” Kejriwal said in a tweet later.

The Odd-Even rule, which allows cars with odd or even number plates to be driven only on alternating days, will be in force between November 4 and 15.

Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) on Wednesday was a “satisfactory” 90, but officials warned that this may change soon if wind patterns – at present blowing in from the east – were to flip and sweep in the smoke from the farm fires.

“At this time of the year, easterly and south-easterly winds blow in Delhi. But, by October 15, the wind directions change. Westerly and north-westerly winds that blow from Punjab and Haryana are not strong enough to blow away the pollution particles,” said Kuldeep Srivastava, head, regional weather forecasting centre.

In 2018, the AQI peaked at 449 -- a level of air pollution that is considered a public health emergency. People are advised to avoid exposure to outside air once AQI crosses 400, with strenuous exercises being particularly harmful. Studies have also shown that living with such levels of air pollution also drastically reduced life expectancy.

In the last three days, at least 148 farm fires have been reported in Punjab, according to officials and satellite monitoring data. Satellite sensing also showed fires in Haryana, though officials said they were not aware of any particular incident.

Attempts to combat crop residue burning are likely to be more complicated this year since officials will not be able to fine farmers who defy the law and burn crop residue to clear their fields. “We will impound harvester machines functioning without a straw management system,” said Punjab agriculture secretary KS Pannu.

Cases of farm fires reported at present are believed to be of limited varieties of paddy that are harvested sooner than the common type. Most paddy harvest begins in the second week of October, leaving little time for farmers to clear the field for sowing winter crops that needs to be completed by mid-November.

“Generally, the harvest for early varieties begins by mid-September. It will start in full swing by October 5,” said Harinder Singh Lokhowal, general secretary Bharti Kisan Union (BKU).

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh also intervened in the issue on Wednesday, asking the Union government to provide financial help for farmers to dispose of crop residue.

A sum of ~100 per quintal of paddy should be given to farmers so that they can arrange to manage the stubble without resorting to its open burning by using the compensation money to meet the paddy straw management cost, the chief minister said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The farmers in the state will face the challenge of managing nearly 20 million tonnes of paddy straw once again this season, he added.

Some officials and experts expressed hope that the situation may not be as bad as least year.

“This year we started monitoring early because some varieties of paddy were sown sooner and hence harvested early. Every year it usually starts around 24-25 September. We hope the instances come down this year because of the alternatives provided by the government last year,” said Krunesh Garg, member secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board.