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No solution to stubble, Punjab cities gasp for air

In Amritsar and Ludhiana, the daily air quality index shot up from ‘satisfactory’ in August to ‘hazardous’ in October.

punjab Updated: Nov 15, 2017 20:00 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Punjab pollution,stubble burning,smog
In Ludhiana, the daily air quality index spiked from the average of 130 in August to a hazardous 423 on October 20.(Gurminder Singh/HT )

It is an annual war on the lungs. Come October, the paddy stubble burning season, and the pollution levels in Punjab start heading northward. While the national capital may be the loudest in bemoaning the sharp dip in its air quality during this time, cities in Punjab fare no better. The air in Ludhiana, for instance, turned hazardous for a number of days last month.

The daily air quality index (AQI) by the Central Pollution Control Board, ministry of environment, tells a tale of the steep fall in air quality beginning October. AQI measures ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide to arrive at a number. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution.

Falling air quality

In Amritsar, the AQI shot up from a “satisfactory” 71 on August 20 to a “very poor” 334 on October 20. Similarly, in Ludhiana, this number spiked from the average of 130 (moderate) in August to a hazardous 423 on October 20. Mandi Gobindgarh too witnessed a similar trend with its AQI rising from 103 in August to a “very poor” 334 in October. This dangerous leap was blamed on the sharp increase in particulate matter (PM) in the air.

Gulshan Rai, chief engineer at the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), Patiala, attributes it to tiny particles in the air caused by stubble burning. “Since these are very light, they stay in the air far longer than the heavy particles,” Rai explained.

While the AQI may have worsened, Pawan Garg, member secretary of PPCB, claimed the incidence of stubble burning has fallen by 50% as compared to last year. “We are monitoring these incidents with the help of satellites at our Remote Sensing Centre in Ludhiana,” said Garg, adding how the awareness blitz launched by the PPCB had covered 1200 villages before the harvesting season. “We have many examples of farmers refraining from setting their crops on fire this year,” he said.

But the ground reports show that farmers around Ludhiana did not heed the PPCB warnings. The industrial city recorded the worst air quality with the AQI skyrocketing to 400+ on a number of days in October, when stubble burning was at its peak. With the incidents of fire petering off, the index in the city also came down from 350 in the first week of November to 303 today, which is still ‘very poor’. Amritsar district, which has a large population of farmers growing Basmati—its stubble can be used as fodder—never breached the hazardous mark (400 +), and was at a moderate AQI of 138 today.

Pradeep Gupta, senior engineer, PPCB, Ludhiana, attributed it to Tuesday’s rainfall in the holy city. “The air in Ludhiana will also get better if we get prolonged showers,” he said.

The unexplored solution

While rains may be a failsafe method against the particulate matter triggered by farm fires, Devinder Sharma, an agriculture analyst, says the deterioration in air quality could have been stemmed had the state government acted wisely. “Punjab has 12.5 lakh Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) card holders who have not been employed. Had it asked the Centre to let it divert these funds worth Rs 4,000 crore for manually weeding out the stubble, we wouldn’t have faced this problem.” Sharma says it would have been a win-win as these labourers would have got jobs, and the farmers freedom from stubble.

Coming down heavily on Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) for offering solutions designed to benefit industry, Sharma said, “The genesis of the present problem lies in over-mechanisation. PAU should develop short-duration paddy varieties without silica. Farmers will then be able to use the stubble as fodder besides getting enough days to sow wheat.” He warned that many of the proposed machines had adverse side-effects. “Happy Seeders,” he claimed, “could lead to compacting of the land after a few years.”

Meanwhile, PPCB continued to count on spreading awareness to do the job. Its website warned, “Khetan de vadd nu agg lagauna kaanoon ate kudrat de khilaf jurm hai (Stubble burning is against the law and nature).”

First Published: Nov 15, 2017 20:00 IST