As Delhi Chokes from Dip in Air Quality, Here's Why Measures to Check Stubble Burning Have Failed
New Delhi: As the national capital saw air pollution levels spike drastically in the past few days, leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) trained their guns on the Centre and the Punjab and Haryana governments “for not taking stern action against the increasing numbers of stubble burning cases”.
From September 23 to October 27, a total of 12, 027 stubble burning incidents were recorded in Punjab, a whopping increase of 2,427 from last year. With 3,735 recorded incidents of stubble burning, Haryana too witnessed an increase, albeit marginal, from last year’s 3,705. In fact, in just the last 24 hours, stubble burning counts recorded an increase from 1,654 to 2,577.
Comments by AAP leaders Dilip Pandey and Atishi blaming the two states raised several concerns over the efficacy of the steps being taken by the Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab governments, who had received relief packages of Rs.137.84 crore, Rs. 148.60 crore and Rs. 269.38 crore respectively from the Centre in 2018.
While authorities from the state governments (particularly in the case of Punjab) have attributed the spike to the decision to advance date of paddy sowing, News18 finds out what really is to blame.
Burning stubble, the leftover crop residue, has been deemed a crime under the Indian Penal Code and the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981. Despite this, farmers in Punjab and Haryana continue to burn the leftover paddy, a practice that started due to the mechanisation of agriculture and shortage of labour because of lack of viable alternatives.
In Haryana, which just last week elected a BJP-led coalition government, data collected by the state government from satellite aggregation pointed out that the highest concentration of fires was around Karnal — with as many as 834 fires as of October 20.
The AQI of PM 2.5 — fine particulate matter which serves as a marker for pollution — was at a maximum of 342 in the district the same day, as air quality in the national capital saw a similar dip.
Following the order, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on September 2019 stayed the recovery of fines from farmers found violating the ban and authorities could only resort to filing police complaints. As of last week, at least 85 complaints were lodged against farmers who were found to be flouting the ban of which only 51 were filed by the authorities in Karnal.
According to the deputy director of Karnal’s agriculture department Aditya Dabas, since the revenue department of the state was busy with election work, action in the 51 cases was delayed.
“We are yet to ascertain who the owners of the fields are since everyone was busy with election duty. We’ll start investigations against each one of them once we get the data,” he had told News18 a day after polling day.
Officers at a local police station near Sheikhpura village in Karnal had also been busy, oscillating between election duty and the increasing pile of stubble burning complaints.
Following instructions from the state revenue department, they had been on the lookout for land-registry papers to identify owners of farmlands where stubble burning has been spotted.
"Our officers have identified fields that have burnt their crop residue. However, in order to register an FIR we need names of owners. The process to identify has been going on. We have received help from the revenue department for this. We are going to individual farmers as well to decipher owners," said the SHO at the police station.
Meanwhile, paddy farmers in the state said they have been left with no other option but to burn the residue.
"Re 1 for a box of matchsticks and Rs 1.5 lakh for Happy Seeders. Which one do you expect us to choose?" asked Suraj Singh, a local farmer in the village.
"Even if we want to rent the machineries, we'll need extra diesel and new tractors. Moreover, there is a small gap of roughly two weeks between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat. As soon as we are done cutting the produce, we need to clear the field and sow new seeds. There is no time to wait for Happy Seeders," he added.
Deepak Singh, another farmer from the same village, said the practice had been going on ever since he started farming. "How can you not compensate farmers and expect them to spend more?" he asked.
In Punjab too, which has seen a 25% increase in stubble burning, no challans have been issued since the high court order. The state's additional chief secretary Vishwajeet Khanna, however, said the challans and FIRs are only methods used to deter the farmer but the “idea really is to educate them”. “The enforcement was done last year as well wherein we imposed fines but didn’t recover too many,” he said.
Failure to implement?
The governments in both states have so far spent a significant part of the Centre’s relief package on machines that manage stubble, including Happy Seeder, paddy straw choppers, reversible mould board (RMB) ploughs and zero till drills.
To make the implements accessible to farmers of small to middle land holdings, the states also lease the machinery through units called Custom Hiring Centers (CHCs).
So far, in Punjab, over 43,000 machines have been distributed to farmer groups and CHCs and the government there is set to give away another 10,000 this year.
Another of Haryana’s districts, which has seen a high number of burnings, is Kurukshetra, where 645 instances were reported till October 20. So far, machines have been sold to 232 centres and 2,000 individual farmers.
Pardeep Meel, deputy director of Kurukshetra, however, raised issues with the effectiveness of the machines.
“All the machines are not effective in every condition. For instance, it isn’t as effective on fields where vegetable is grown. The other thing is that the Happy Seeders only work for certain levels of moisture. If there is more or less moisture in the soil, it will not cut the stubble,” he said.
In this case, Meel further explained, the farmers are then forced to use other machines that leave behind stubble.
(With inputs from Rounak Kumar Gunjan, News18)