Hold your breath, that deadly smog is com­ing

Farm­ers have started burn­ing stub­ble and with no so­lu­tion in sight, Del­hi­ites ready to put on masks yet again

Hindustan Times (Patiala) - - Ht Punjab & Haryana - Joy­deep Thakur and Ri­tam Halder htre­porters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

HARYANA/PUN­JAB:Honk­ing its way down the nar­row Taraouri Road, in Haryana’s Kar­nal district, the 16-wheeler truck van­ished into dense smoke bil­low­ing from a field set on fire by its owner to get rid of the stub­ble left be­hind af­ter the paddy was har­vested.

Agri­cul­tural stub­ble–mil­lions of tonnes –is burnt by farm­ers in north­ern In­dia ev­ery Oc­to­ber, trig­ger­ing heavy pol­lu­tion in Delhi-NCR be­fore win­ter.

The an­nual episode has al­ready be­gun this year, leav­ing Delhi res­i­dents con­cerned. The mem­ory of the 2016 smog, trig­gered pri­mar­ily by burn­ing of stub­ble and crackers, is still fresh in their minds.

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. Hindustan Times trav­elled to Pun­jab and Haryana for a ground re­port . In a two-part se­ries, HT also tries to come up with some so­lu­tions.

GROUND SCE­NARIO

Trav­el­ling along the Na­tional High­way from Delhi to Haryana and then to Pun­jab, it would be dif­fi­cult for one to as­sess the quan­tum of the prob­lem. But as one trav­els into the vil­lages, off the NH, the drama un­folds.

Some farm­ers at Kac­ch­hwa, a re­mote vil­lage in Kar­nal, were seen har­vest­ing paddy. Oth­ers had set their farm­lands on fire, leav­ing be­hind black ash. Smoke was seen in some farm­lands at a dis­tance. Fires were still rag­ing.

Stub­ble burn­ing has started. NASA im­ages re­vealed red dots –denot­ing in­ci­dents of fire–have started ap­pear­ing al­most ev­ery­where in Haryana and Pun­jab.

In Haryana, Fate­hbad, Kait­gers hal, Kar­nal, Sirsa, Jind re­ported the most in­ci­dents. In Pun­jab, re­ports poured in from Am­rit­sar, Tarn Taran and Pa­tiala. “It is spread­ing like wild­fire. Ev­ery farmer waits for his neighbour to light the fire,” said a farmer.

THE MEN­ACE

Most stud­ies speak of biomass burn­ing, which in­cludes crop residue fires. But hardly any talks about stub­ble burn­ing and its ef­fect in iso­la­tion.

A study -- So­cioe­co­nomic and En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pli­ca­tions of Agri­cul­tural Residue Burn­ing pub­lished by Springer in 2015 -sheds some light. Stub­ble burn­ing, it says, re­sults in emis­sion of harm­ful gases such as car­bon monox­ide, N2O, NO2, SO2, CH4 along with par­tic­u­late mat­ter and hy­dro­car­bons.

Each tonne of crop residue on burn­ing releases 3 kg of par­tic­u­late mat­ter, 60 kg of CO, 1,460 kg of CO2, 199 kg of ash and 2 kg of SO2. “The dam­age doesn’t end here. Stub­ble burn­ing also takes a heavy toll on the soil, re­sult­ing in loss of nu­tri­ents,” said Po­lash Muk­er­jee, se­nior re­search as­so­ci­ate (air pol­lu­tion), Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment.

The same study says each hectare of paddy straw con­tains around 39 kg of nitro­gen, six kg of phos­pho­rus, 140 kg of potas­sium and around 11 kg of sul­phur. It is es­ti­mated a sig­nif­i­cant amount of this nu­tri­ent is lost on burn­ing. “Burn­ing also takes a toll on mi­cro-or­gan­isms and other small crea­tures such as earth­worms that help en­rich the soil,” said CR Babu, ecol­o­gist.

REA­SON FOR CON­CERN

Delhi had no rea­son to worry had it not been for the chang­ing wind pat­tern at time of the year.

“With the re­treat of mon­soon, the north­west­erly winds start blow­ing in. This paves the way for a ma­jor chunk of the pol­lu­tants to reach Delhi and other cities lo­cated in the path of the winds,” said D Saha, head of the air qual­ity lab­o­ra­tory, Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board.

In sum­mer, the wind blows in the op­po­site di­rec­tion be­cause of which stub­ble burn­ing has lit­tle ef­fect in Delhi.

Stud­ies show stub­ble burn­ing con­trib­utes any­where between 12% and 60% to Delhi’s pol­lu­tion load dur­ing this time, depend­ing on wind di­rec­tion and speed.

Fire­crack­ers dur­ing Di­wali are a ma­jor source of pol­lu­tion be­fore win­ter but stub­ble burn­ing is a larger headache as it lin- for days, start­ing the first week of Oc­to­ber.

Delhi’s air qual­ity has started de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and PM10 and PM2.5 lev­els are ris­ing. “Th­ese are very fine par­ti­cles and can pen­e­trate deep into our lungs. The el­derly, chil­dren and those suf­fer­ing from chronic res­pi­ra­tory and car­diac problems are par­tic­u­larly at risk,” said Dr A Mo­han, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of pul­monary medicine and sleep dis­or­der, AIIMS.

GOVT VS VIL­LAGERS

The main prob­lem seems to be the de­mand-sup­ply chain. The govern­ment says it has ex­tended sub­sidy to farm­ers to pur­chase ma­chin­ery to dis­pose of cut stub­ble. Farm­ers say they are yet to re­ceive as­sis­tance.

Pun­jab’s farm­ers de­mand ₹300 per quin­tal for not burn­ing paddy stub­ble, be­sides sub­sidy on ma­chines such as happy seed­ers and shred­ders. They say dis­pos­ing of the straw in an en­vi­ron­ment friendly man­ner would mean an ad­di­tional ex­pen­di­ture of ₹ 5,000-6,000 per acre.

“We have no op­tion but to burn them. Heard about a govern­ment aid of ₹100 per quin­tal but have never got a penny,” said a vil­lager at Fate­hgarh Channa, Pun­jab. He re­fused to iden­tify him­self fear­ing ac­tion.

Farm­ers in Haryana’s Kar­nal and Ku­ruk­shetra had sim­i­lar com­plaints – no aid from the govern­ment, no ma­chines and no al­ter­na­tives to stub­ble burn­ing.

“We are try­ing to pro­vide as­sis­tance to farm­ers. But things can’t be done overnight. We need some aid from the Cen­tre too,” said a se­nior of­fi­cial of the Haryana agri­cul­ture depart­ment.

The Na­tional Green Tri­bunal last week had rapped the Pun­jab govern­ment for not pro­vid­ing in­cen­tive and in­fra­struc­ture as­sis­tance to farm­ers to stop them from burn­ing stub­ble.

The quan­tum of the prob­lem can be es­ti­mated from the fact that an es­ti­mated 35 mil­lion ton- nes are burnt in Pun­jab and Haryana alone to make room for the win­ter wheat crop.

Seek­ing govern­ment aid to han­dle farm residue, farmer union rep­re­sen­ta­tives col­lec­tively set fire to a 25-acre field at Sha­jju Bhatt vil­lage in Nabha to send across a mes­sage of de­fi­ance on Tues­day.

Gurmeet Singh, 67, sec­re­tary of the Kul Hind Kisan Sabha said: “We un­der­stand pol­lu­tion and that this is caus­ing harm even in Delhi. But we have no other way. If the govern­ment helps us out and give farm­ers ₹5,000 per acre, we won’t burn. This is an ad­di­tional bur­den. Re­lief is needed.”

BANNED BY NGT IN 2015

The NGT had banned crop burn­ing in 2015 and di­rected state gov­ern­ments to take ac­tion against vi­o­la­tors. It asked them to with­draw as­sis­tance to such farm­ers and im­posed penal­ties. At the same time, it had asked the gov­ern­ments to pro­vide ma­chin­ery, to dis­pose of stub­ble, free of cost to farm­ers hav­ing less than two acres of land

There­after, the gov­ern­ments were re­peat­edly pulled up by courts and court pan­els. But crop burn­ing con­tin­ues un­abated.

SANCHIT KHANNA/HT PHOTO

Farm­ers set crop stub­ble on fire in Pun­jab. Smoke from the fields of Pun­jab and Haryana choke Delhi ev­ery year.

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