Beware Delhi! Prepare for smog again, stubble burning has begun

Security personnel stand guard in front of the India Gate amidst the heavy smog in New Delhi
Do you remember how the plumes of blinding smoke billowed from the fields in Haryana and Punjab and travelled to Delhi-NCR? Be prepared! It might return to choke children, women, men and animals too. Stubble burning has begun.

"The incidents (of stubble burning) are being reported now, but not yet on a large scale. The condition of air is, however, dependent on many factors, including the concentration of emissions that reaches Delhi and that which is dispersed," an official from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) said.

Though the National Green Tribunal banned crop burning in 2015, implementing the order had been difficult. Farmers set crop residue afire mainly because of cost concerns and the short gap between summer and winter crops. Lack of incentives and equipment to cut the stubble are other issues.

Stubble burning has become a major concern for authorities as it causes air pollution as well as reduces soil fertility.

This prompted the government and the district administration to tighten strictures against stubble burning, and book charges against farmers, who are not following orders.

However, the farmers continue the practice, so that they can sow crops for the next season as soon as they can and maintain the level of crop produce.

Effects of burning paddy

The ill-effects of these fires are not limited to the two states. They travel to Delhi because of the westerly winds, causing major health concerns among people, say environment experts.

Burning of paddy residue causes air pollution, smog and also leads to serious medical problems such as breathing issues, allergies and asthma attacks. The smoke also affects the brain, eyes and the nervous system, say doctors.

It causes emission of smoke and toxic gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and nitrous oxide. It also leads to poor soil health as the phenomenon eliminates essential nutrients, experts said.

2016 smog horror

The National Capital last year (November to December) suffered from one of the major air quality crises of the decade after Diwali.

The after-Diwali effect (emissions from crackers and other sources), large-scale stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh led to a cumulative effect of dragging the AQI under 'Severe' category, thereafter the AQI (PM2.5 and PM10) breached the 500 mark at all locations in Delhi.

Schools were closed following government advisories and outdoor activities were officially discouraged.

Distressed farmers, helpless

They have few options available to avoid burning the crop residue.

With a bumper paddy crop expected in the two agrarian states this kharif season -- likely in excess of 22.5 million tonnes -- the crop residue that will be burnt by farmers to prepare their land for the next crop sowing will be phenomenal. Punjab is expecting to procure over 18 million tonnes of paddy this season. 

Last week a case had been lodged against 18 farmers, who allegedly practised stubble-burning in Haryana's Karnal district.

A fine had also been imposed on the farmers, along with the administration giving them a warning. However, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) has come out in support of the farmers, who have resorted to stubble burning in Karnal, and have opened a front against the government.

"The government made a wrong law and is sending farmers to jail. We are holding protests at different places and have called for 'Kheti choro, jail chalo'," BKU state president Ratan Maan told the media in Karnal.

The BKU also held protests in Ladwa in Haryana's Kurukshetra district on Tuesday.

A headache for government

The central and state governments, in recent years, have tried several steps -- from warning farmers to registering cases against them to creating awareness on stubble-burning, but nothing seems to be working. 

Amarinder Singh has ruled out confronting the farmers on the issue, saying his government "would not add to the financial burden of the beleaguered farmers, many of whom are committing suicide due to economic hardship". 

"While we are committed to environmental protection, we would not pressurise the farmers in the process of implementing the ban on burning of paddy residue. There is no question of penalising the farmers, who can barely make both ends meet," Amarinder said, adding that the law and order machinery was not adequate to solve the problem, which required collective efforts by the central and state governments for a meaningful resolution. 

The Haryana and Punjab governments have imposed a ban on burning paddy residue, with erring farmers subject to prosecution on their failure to toe the official line.

Punjab government earlier said that farmers have stopped burning paddy stubble and are using it to generate electricity with the help of biomass machines, chairman of Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) Bhure Lal has said.

At present, six machines are being used to produce 62.5 Mw electricity from the paddy stubble, which is the remaining part of the harvested crop. But the number of machines are being increased to generate 600 Mw electricity from it, he said.

NGT's warning to the states

Earlier, the NGT had warned the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan that it would stop the payment of salaries of government officials if they failed to come up with an action plan to prevent stubble burning, which triggers heavy pollution in Delhi-NCR.

It had directed the governments of these states to show how the field staff of their concerned departments and the state pollution control boards were going to control pollution caused by crop residue burning.

The NGT had also fixed the environment penalty amounts per incident of crop burning to be paid by small land owners having less than two acres of land at Rs 2,500, medium land owners holding over two acres and less than five acres at Rs 5,000 and those owning over five acres at Rs 15,000.

It had directed the state governments to take coercive and punitive action against persistent defaulters and asked them to withdraw the assistance provided to such farmers.

The green panel had said the five states--Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi--which had issued notifications prohibiting agriculture crop residue burning, should ensure that these notifications were enforced rigorously and proper action was taken against the defaulters.

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