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High Pollution, Few FIRs: In Haryana, Farmers Get Away With Stubble Burning as Poll Duty Keeps Cops Busy

Every year starting from October, the air quality in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab sinks because of the practice of setting paddy fields ablaze.

Rounak Kumar Gunjan | News18.com@Rounak_T

Updated:October 14, 2019, 1:12 PM IST
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High Pollution, Few FIRs: In Haryana, Farmers Get Away With Stubble Burning as Poll Duty Keeps Cops Busy
File photo of a farmer burning waste paddy stubble in a field. (Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika)

Karnal: Suresh and six others were booked in Karnal's Sohana village last Tuesday for burning straw stubble. However, in the week that went past, most farmers in the village and adjoining areas set their farms on fire without being booked. Even Suresh has not had to pay any penalty.

"I was not the only one. Just that the deputy commissioner saw me doing it and I got booked. Every farmer I know has burnt the paddy stubble. It happens every year but this time the administration is being lenient due to state elections," said Suresh.

In December 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned crop residue burning in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Burning crop residue is a crime under the Indian Penal Code and the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981.

News18 travelled to Haryana's districts of Ambala, Kurukshetra and Karnal where nothing seems to have changed for the farmers. Almost all of them still rely on fire to get rid of the leftover stubble and loose straw after paddy is harvested. This year, they have been 'allowed' to do it more freely.

WhatsApp Image 2019-10-14 at 10.26.25 AM

"I usually put fire to be my farm after sunset, so that I don't get noticed easily. This year the patrolling has been relatively lesser. I have burnt the straw during the day itself," said one of the farmers in Kurukshetra who did not want to be named.

Along the state highway that connects Karnal to Hisar, most farms were either burning or had been burnt. Close to 350 stubble burning incidents have been reported through satellite mapping in the last 15 days itself, according to Haryana State Pollution Control Board. However, this entire season, 58 FIRs have been registered in the state.

The challan amount last year was Rs 2,500 for a farm up to two hectares, Rs 5,000 for one between two hectares and five hectares and Rs 15,000 for a farm more than five hectares. In the entire paddy harvesting season last year, more than six thousand challans were issued and Rs 50.05 lakh was recovered.

Local Police officials denied any such leniency. "Most of the officers are busy with election duties. There is no deliberate attempt at letting go of the farmers. We have no such instructions from anyone," said the station house officer in Kurukshetra.

Haryana goes to polls on October 21.

No Viable Substitutes

"How do you expect a farmer to not burn the stubble? Will a debt-ridden farmer be able to use the expensive machinery that the government provides? Where will the money for extra diesel come?" Surender Sangwan, a local paddy farmer in Sheikhpura village of Karnal, posed questions that brought to light why farmers have not been able to make the shift to machines for getting rid of the leftover straw and stubble post harvest.

As of now, farmers use regular combine harvesters which leave 12 to 14 inch stalks after the crop has been cut. The gap between harvesting paddy and planting the succeeding wheat crop is approximately 15 to 20 days. Farmers prepare the ground for next sowing in this short span by setting their fields on fire.

Every year starting from October, the air quality in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab sinks because of the practice of setting paddy fields ablaze. In order to address the issue, the state government subsidised the purchase of Happy Seeders and Super-SMS that eliminate the need to burn crop residue. State administrators also provided the option of renting the machines.

Larger than the usual combine harvester, Happy Seeder helps in planting wheat on the field, while simultaneously cutting the standing stubble and spreading it over the sown seeds to conserve moisture. Super-SMS, on the other hand, is an attachment to a combine harvester, which spreads the loose straw thrown up by the machine evenly across the field, making it easier to run the Happy Seeder.

However, farmers find both options expensive.

"Setting fire is almost free. It costs over a lakh each for these machines. The renting cost also runs into thousands. How is it viable?" asked Sangwan.

The state also provides the option of custom hiring centres or farmers’ collectives of at least eight farmers, where a subsidy of 80 per cent for the machine is allowed.

Teg Singh, a farmer in Ambala's Dhorkara village, was fined Rs 3,000 for stubble burning last year.

"Putting fire to farms has been going on for decades. Why suddenly the noise in the past five years? This government is doing good by thinking about pollution but it needs to compensate the farmers for the same," he said.

Predicting Lesser Pollution This Year

According to ministry of agriculture, stubble burning raises carbon dioxide levels in the air by almost 70 per cent. The concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide also rises by 7 per cent and 2.1 per cent, respectively, triggering respiratory and heart problems.

However, this year, farmers predicted that pollution levels in Delhi maybe lower due to wind towards the west. "The smoke is not stagnant this year. The westward wind is taking it further west," said Deepak Sangwan, a local farmer in Karnal.

Despite the wind, Delhi's air quality index (AQI) touched the 245 mark, which falls in the poor category. The adjoining areas of Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Noida, Baghpat, Murthal recorded their AQI at 287, 233, 275, 258 and 245, respectively.

The air quality in Karnal district of Haryana turned "very poor" on Sunday night. It touched the 351 mark in the AQI index, according to Central Pollution Control Board data.

An AQI between 0 and 50 is considered 'good', 51 and 100 'satisfactory', 101 and 200 'moderate', 201 and 300 'poor', 301 and 400 'very poor', and 401 and 500 'severe'.

Experts said winds are calm due to the monsoon withdrawal, leading to low dispersion of pollutants.

Summing up every Haryana farmer's dilemma with fighting pollution, and at the same time keeping costs low, Deepak said, "Give us money, we will not use fire. No farmer wants to make people sick. We produce to keep everyone healthy."

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