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Smog: The Firefight

  • Sushil Manav in Chandigarh

There are layers of factors for the worst state of pollution that we saw early this month. If one factor is stubble burning, the other is political and administrative inaction. Caught in between are farmers and common citizens who are left at the mercy of weather
It was a better day, though hazy, on Nov 15: A perfect opportunity for Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to land in Chandigarh; his flight was on time. Exactly a week back, a pea-souper had engulfed Delhi, forcing closure of primary schools in the national capital. Pollution had hit 70 notches more than the World Health Organization’s safe level, prompting doctors in the capital city to warn of a public health emergency. Dozens of trains coming to the capital and 30 flights had been delayed. So, Nov 15 was to be the best available day. The CM met his Haryana counterpart Manohar Lal Khattar two days after Kejriwal’s fervent wish to see Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh had been met with a bridling rejection.
The subject of supposedly three-way discussion was burning of the stubble, the paddy crop residue that most farmers have to burn — causing widespread suffocating smoke across North India — in the absence of a viable and economical alternative. Not that Khattar and Kejriwal managed to hit it off well; that was not the agenda. They pulled off a surprise for the reporters: the CMs finished off the official meeting in about an hour, smiled before the cameras and offered platitudes such as they would work together to get the national capital rid of the deadly smog by next year.
Then came in a weather prediction: it was going to be a little breezy, and that there could be a drizzle by the weekend. So, the smog had to go as per the annual weather pattern. All have breathed a sigh of relief. Any long-term solution to stubble burning — contributing about 20% of smog — thus remains as elusive as ever.
Back in the Haryana hinterland, time was running out for Sukhraj Singh, a farmer from Dher village of Fatehabad: His fields were still strewn with dried paddy stubble. Several farmers in his neighbourhood areas had already prepared for the next wheat crop. The fear of getting fined for burning the residue weighed heavy on his mind more because his farmland is situated along the main Fatehabad-Jakhal-Chandigarh road and is easily visible. Finally, he gave in and set his fields on fire last Tuesday.
“I know what I am doing is banned, but I don’t have any options. I have to prepare my fields for wheat within the next week, otherwise I will be late,” said Sukhraj.
Farmers in a bind
Hundreds of farmers in Fatehabad, Sirsa, Hisar, Kaithal, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Panipat, Ambala, Yamunanagar and other paddy-producing areas have burnt the paddy stubble defying orders from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and warnings from the state government. “The authorities told us to keep stubble aside and that they would arrange for its transportation to gaushalas (cow protection centres). But they didn’t tell us where to store it. To store stubble in an acre, one needs at least 1-marla land. So, over 19,000 acres will be required to store stubble if all farmers in the state decide not to burn the stubble,” says a farmer at Dharsul village of Fatehabad. Fatehabad deputy commissioner Hardeep Singh says he has asked villagers to deposit stubble on panchayat land wherever it is lying vacant.
Satnam Singh, a Sirsa farmer, says he can allow the stubble to decompose provided he was allowed to transplant paddy a bit earlier. But paddy sowing before June 15 is banned by law. Gurjeet Singh Mann, a progressive farmer from Sirsa, says sowing early varieties of paddy was not practical for several reasons.
“The government bars paddy transplantation before June 15 every year because sowing takes place in standing water when the evaporation is very high during May and first half of June. Relaxation in the ban would result in inferior rice quality,” says Mann.
The ill-effects of smog do not limit to NCR alone; people living in the hinterland where paddy straw is being burnt are equally affected. Dr Manish Tuteja, Chest and TB Specialist in general hospital Fatehabad, where most incidents of setting paddy fields on fire have been reported, says the number of patients in his OPD increased from 120 normally to 180 during the smoggy days. “Most patients complained of chest and throat infection,” he said.
Going around in circles
On October 5, the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) issued a three-page order citing directions of the National Green Tribunal and Punjab & Haryana High Court on disposal of wheat and paddy straw. The board issued directions for effective implementation of the orders and formed district-level committees under deputy commissioners.
The orders said that small landholders having an area less than 2 acres will have to pay an environmental compensation of Rs 2,500 per incident of fire, those with landholding of more than 2 acres but less than 5 acres will have to pay Rs 5,000 per incident and those with more than 5 acres will have to pay a compensation of Rs 15,000 per incident of fire on their fields.
Environment Minister Vipul Goel says police cases have been registered against 244 farmers and a fine of Rs 18.65 lakh has been imposed on 695 farmers for stubble burning in Haryana. The number is very small considering that the total area under paddy in the state is nearly 12 lakh hectares, and lakhs of farmers grow the crop and burn their stubble.
A senior SPCB officer says the board is ill-equipped to take up the mammoth task. “At least half of our 12 regional offices looking after three districts each do not have a vehicle. Our official work is very diverse. During smoggy days, our staff in the NCR region remained busy till midnight to ensure closure of manufacturing units as per NGT orders,” he said.
“Farmers can’t be blamed, as smoke from stubble burning constitutes merely 15% of the total air pollution,” says former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda. He is against the fine imposed on farmers and demands that the state government pay it because it has failed to provide any alternative to farmers.
40 years later, Punjab pays for paddy shift
Chandigarh: The problem of crop residue burning has taken a serious turn over the last 40 years when the first cotton crop — a cash staple — failed in Punjab and farmers were bedazzled by the government and farm scientist’s pleas to go in for paddy. A farmer growing traditional crops such as pearl millet, maize, pulses and oilseeds in the late 70s and early 80s with subsistence existence was hooked.
Today, Rs 11,477 crore is needed to prevent stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, as per a Niti Aayog data. The Aayog is of the view that an infusion of Rs 5, 000 crore should be immediately credited to the farmers under the Direct Benefit Transfer system to tide over the crises. The amount can enable a farmer to buy necessary Conservation Agriculture (CA) implements.
From where this astronomical sum will come is anyone’s guess, but a study by CA scientists has calculated that Rs 484 crore was needed this year with potential benefits of Rs 1,470 crore spread over two years. Again it’s a case of low accountability and wastage of time. Strangely, the commission is silent on the burning that takes place even when wheat is harvested.
As an immediate measure, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered that straw should be procured for Rs 550 per quintal which would be used by the NTPC in its thermal plants. The farmers would only have to deliver the bales to the designated depots for this purpose and the expenses would be borne by the state. But it appeared a tall order. The NTPC counsel told the NGT on Friday that power plants converting “farm stubble to pellets” were only few. Now that most of the straw has already been set ablaze, the farmers wonder if the NGT would spare time to direct a state to fulfil its obligations in the next season.

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