Blame Game Continues as Stubble Fires Rise in Punjab, Bad Air Days Return to Delhi

Is a permanent solution possible to what has now emerged as a crisis with serious health implications?

Chandigarh: Stubble burning in Punjab has entered what many believe is its peak zone, with daily average cases of fires since October 28 going above 1,950, according to data compiled by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).The situation is no better in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The daily average cases of fires over the last five days in these states were 100 and 50, respectively.Dr. Ravindra Khaiwal, professor of environment health at Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh, told The Wire that it is likely that stubble fires will increase as farmers will clear fields for sowing now. The burning of stubble, the paddy straw left over after harvesting, has emerged as a key practice in major paddy producing states in northern India. Farmers usually do this before moving on to the next crop.Just like paddy, wheat also produces straw. However, wheat straw can be used as animal feed. Processing paddy straw, otherwise a wastage for farmers, is costly and often, farmers burn it.According to IARI data, at least 17,846 cases have already been reported in Punjab between September 15 and November 1 this year – a 19% increase from last year. The number of stubble fire cases between September 15 and November 1, 2021, were 15,065.At least 9,699 cases were just added in the past five days – 2,067 on October 28, 1,898 on October 29 and 1,761 on October 30 and 2,131 on October 31 and 1,842 on November 1.In Haryana and UP, the scale of stubble burning is not as big as Punjab due to over mechanisation (combine-based paddy harvesting is the main culprit behind leaving loose straw in the fields, which end up burning) and higher paddy acreage. But it is still adding to the overall problem. In Haryana and UP, the cases reported so far between September 15 and November 1 were 2,083 and 777, respectively, as against 3,038 and 1,217 reported last year during the same period As the data suggests, Punjab is a bigger problem as far as stubble burning is concerned. That is why it got the lion’s share of Rs 1,147 crore in the Union government’s Rs 2,400-crore grant on subsidising crop residue machines between 2018 and 2021 to help farmers to stay away from stubble burning. Last year, out of 92,047 stubble burning events, which IARI detected in six states between September 15 and November 30 through satellite monitoring, Punjab had 71,304 cases (77%), followed by Haryana’s 6,987 (7.5%) and UP’s 4,242 (4.6%).With no visible change in the practice in the region this year, especially in Punjab, there is clear indication that all the major solutions, which states and the Union government mulled and invested in over the past three to four years have not produced desired results. Delhi’s air turns toxic Delhi’s air quality on October 29 deteriorated to the “severe” category for the first time this season, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data. A day later, it came down to the “very poor” category. Then on November 1, it again deteriorated to the “severe” category. Dr P.K. Kingra, professor, Department of Climate Change and Agricultural Meteorology, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, told The Wire that Punjab is not responsible for Delhi’s deteriorated air conditions.“We have studied atmospheric conditions of Punjab and Delhi over the last four years and found that wind speed is not strong enough in October and November to move the smoke generated from stubble burning in Punjab to Delhi,” she said. She added, “I am not saying stubble burning does not affect air quality. It does and has severe effects in Punjab. But to say that smoke from Punjab moves to Delhi and deteriorates its air is not right. Delhi has multiple sources of air pollution responsible for its air pollution.” The data by System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), which works under the Union Ministry of Earth Science, however, indicates that stubble burning has its share in Delhi’s air pollution. As cases of stubble burning increased substantially in Punjab, Haryana and UP in the past three to four days, SAFAR data reveals that the share of stubble burning in Delhi’s PM 2.5 pollution jumped from 5% on October 26 to 26% on October 30.Last year between October 20 and November 14, Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was in the severe zone (401-500) for seven days. On each of these days, the contribution of farm fires to Delhi’s PM 2.5 contribution, as per SAFAR, was between 26%-48%. Reacting to SAFAR’s data, Punjab pollution member secretary Krunesh Garg told The Wire that there’s no scientific evidence to prove that smoke from the burning is moving to the national capital. SAFAR’s data is based on algorithms rather than real-time monitoring. Even if one assumes that Punjab contributes some percentage to Delhi’s air pollution, its impact, however, is periodic, which is not more than two to weeks in a year,” he said. He said that he does not deny that stubble burning in Punjab contributes to local pollution. Small towns and villages in the state are more exposed to stubble fires than Delhi, he added. As per the CPCB data, the AQI of Amritsar, Ludhiana, Patiala and Bathinda was in the “poor” category on October 31.On the same day, the AQI of Haryana’s Yamuna Nagar, Kurukshetra, Hisar, Rohtak deteriorated to the “very poor” category. Also read: Air Pollution Cuts Indians’ Life Expectancy by 5 Years: Air Quality Life Index Officials blamed delayed harvesting On why Punjab has failed to control crop residue burning, Gurvinder Singh, director of Punjab agriculture department, blamed it on delayed paddy harvesting. He told The Wire that the department was ready with a plan to reduce stubble fires by providing 26,000 crop residue machines to farmers. However, the rainfall in September’s last week and October’s first week prolonged paddy harvesting. This narrowed the time needed for wheat crop sowing, leading to farmers deciding to burn paddy stubble. He also blamed it on the excessive interference of farmer unions, especially in the Malwa region of Punjab. “Our teams went [there] to educate farmers but the union leaders did not allow our teams in several villages,” he said. Farmer unions have claimed that subsidised machines being promoted as the top solution has only benefitted machinery manufacturers or big farmers. Around 32% of farmers in Punjab have less than 2.02 hectares of landholding. These small and marginal farmers cannot afford in-situ machines which, even after subsidy, are priced at Rs. 1.5 lakh, said farm leader Balbir Singh Rajewal. A majority of the farmer unions and even a section of experts have been advocating cash compensation to farmers to help them bear expenses needed to dispose of stubble without burning it. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab claimed that it had sent a proposal to the Union government in July this year asking it to contribute Rs 1,500 per acre in its plan to give Rs 2,500 per acre compensation to state farmers. But the Union government denied the proposal. But this blame game is not helping Punjab to solve what has become an annual health emergency crisis, affecting millions in the pre-winter season. Other solutions like bio-decomposer, which AAP national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal once pitched as a more viable and cheap solution, are not working in Punjab. The focus on industry-backed solutions like using stubble as raw material for biogas-based power generation too has its limitations. Separately, a study conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University, which covered 2,100 farmers in 110 villages, found that almost all farmers believe that stubble management, that requires the adoption of crop residue machines, high-powered tractors, raised their financial burden. Blame game At an inter-ministerial meeting on the issue of crop residue burning in Delhi-NCR on October 19, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav said that the Punjab government has not taken adequate steps to prevent farm fires in the state. Union agriculture and farmers’ welfare minister Narendra Singh Tomar said that the status of paddy straw management in Haryana was “significantly better than that in Punjab”, the environment ministry said in a statement. In response, AAP blamed the Union government for the rise in stubble burning cases in Punjab. Delhi environment minister and AAP leader Gopal Rai said, “The Centre’s blunt refusal to provide cash incentives to Punjab farmers to avoid stubble burning has impacted the entire campaign against stubble burning in the state.” On whether stubble cases can ever be reduced, Punjab agriculture department director, Gurvinder Singh, said that the permanent solution is crop diversification only. But Punjab can’t do it alone without the Union government’s support. He said that the farmers in Punjab started growing paddy in the 1960s after the Union government began purchasing their produce at an assured price. A similar system is needed to shift farmers from paddy to other crops.