As Delhi chokes, farm­ers de­fend scorched earth pol­icy

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

As he sur­veys his acres of charred farm­land out­side New Delhi, Ish­war Singh has lit­tle sym­pa­thy for peo­ple chok­ing in In­dia’s cap­i­tal or any rea­son to stop the fires that are fu­elling pol­lu­tion. “Ev­ery­one does it and we’ve got no op­tion as we can’t af­ford to waste time or money clearing our land in other ways,” says Singh. “All those com­plain­ing about what we’re do­ing to our fields don’t know a thing about farm­ing and what peo­ple like me have to do to grow po­ta­toes or onions and other veg­eta­bles. “If we didn’t do it, then what would they eat? What prices would they have to pay? Ev­ery­thing would be­come mas­sively ex­pen­sive.”

While there are mul­ti­ple fac­tors be­hind New Delhi’s sta­tus as the world’s most pol­luted cap­i­tal, much of the lat­est bout of smog has been blamed on the il­le­gal but wide­spread prac­tice among farm­ers of burn­ing crop stub­ble. At­tempts to tackle the prob­lem have amounted to lit­tle more than hot air as In­dia’s fed­eral sys­tem of gov­ern­ment makes en­force­ment a chal­lenge. Re­gional-ri­val Bei­jing, on the other hand, which com­petes with Delhi on poor air qual­ity, has man­aged to stem the tide of pol­lu­tion by or­der­ing fac­tory shut­downs and cars off the road with ad hoc edicts is­sued by the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party.

Back in the In­dian cap­i­tal, the city’s gov­ern­ment ad­mit­ted it was strug­gling to halt the cri­sis as Delhi Chief Min­is­ter Arvind Ke­jri­wal claimed last week that be­tween 15 mil­lion to 20 mil­lion tons of stub­ble had been burnt in neigh­bor­ing states. Ke­jri­wal ap­pealed to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, headed by his arch ri­val Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, to in­ter­vene with the state gov­ern­ments to find a res­o­lu­tion to the prac­tice of crop burn­ing.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of farm­ers who mainly cul­ti­vate rice and wheat set fire to their fields af­ter har­vest to clear the residue of their pri­mary crops so they can grow veg­eta­bles over the au­tumn on the same land.

The prac­tice is par­tic­u­larly in­tense in the states of Pun­jab, Haryana and Ut­tar Pradesh, which serve as Delhi’s bread­bas­kets. While Singh’s farm in Haryana is around two hours drive from down­town Delhi, the smoke blown from fields such as his is a pri­mary cause for the toxic smog which has shrouded the city. Lev­els of PM2.5 — the fine par­ti­cles linked to higher rates of chronic bron­chi­tis, lung can­cer and heart dis­ease-have breached the “haz­ardous” up­per limit of 500 sev­eral times in Delhi this month.

Stub­ble burn­ing is tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, but it’s rare for farm­ers to face more than a to­ken fine. Singh was re­cently fined 2,500 ru­pees (around $35) but he said the lo­cal of­fi­cials who sanc­tioned him were apolo­getic and it was a small price to pay for ro­tat­ing his crops. An­other small farmer, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity as some of his land was still smol­der­ing, said the al­ter­na­tives were not vi­able. “I can’t af­ford ma­chines and if I hired peo­ple to clear all the residue, I would have to pay them and lose a week of grow­ing time.

“Be­sides, no one does a thing about these big busi­ness­men,” he added, point­ing to a nearby pro­cess­ing plant belch­ing out fumes. The im­pact of fac­tory pol­lu­tion and crop burn­ing goes far be­yond state bound­aries, but au­thor­i­ties are re­luc­tant to take ac­tion which might alien­ate vote banks such as farm­ers and business lead­ers. Both Pun­jab and Ut­tar Pradesh hold state elec­tions next year. The ban on crop burn­ing is rarely en­forced and suc­ces­sive court judg­ments or­der­ing age­ing ve­hi­cles off Delhi’s roads are also rou­tinely flouted, lead­ing to more un­wel­come com­par­isons with China’s track record.

“We have re­peat­edly failed to im­ple­ment the laws in In­dia,” said Ma­hesh Palawat, chief me­te­o­rol­o­gist at pri­vate weather fore­caster Skymet. “There is hardly any con­trol on emis­sions. The num­ber of ve­hi­cles is go­ing up and con­struc­tion still con­tin­ues across the re­gion.” “China is us­ing tech­nol­ogy and strict im­ple­men­ta­tion be­cause the au­thor­i­ties recog­nise air pol­lu­tion as a health emer­gency and are do­ing ev­ery­thing to con­trol it. “But here in In­dia, there is no po­lit­i­cal will and laws are never im­ple­mented on ground, mostly be­cause no one takes pol­lu­tion se­ri­ously.”

Avin Sharma, who works in Delhi for a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion, ques­tioned whether au­thor­i­ties re­ally had the stom­ach to take on the range of vested in­ter­ests that con­trib­ute to the pol­lu­tion. “There are plenty of laws to deal with vi­o­la­tors but they are wast­ing time by blam­ing each other,” said Sharma.—AFP

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