Favourable winds might be helping Delhi’s air from slipping into hazardous territory, but it may not last long as the potent combination of adverse weather, spike in local pollution and smoke from farm fires can be set in motion with a slight change in wind direction and speed.
Crucially, the burning of paddy straw in Haryana and Punjab, which on Monday contributed to 10% of the PM 2.5 pollution load Delhi-NCR, has already reached levels which are more than the previous two years, officials from Haryana and Punjab said.
Between September 16 and October 17, Punjab recorded 5,552 fires, satellite images showed while Haryana recorded 2,676 fires, officials from Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) and Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) said. A surge in the farm fires is usually seen in the last week of October and it peaks in the first two weeks of November.
Even a moderate change in wind direction can favour the transport of smoke generated due to burning of paddy straw. This, combined with a drop in temperatures and wind speed, exacerbates the matter as it traps local pollutants as well as smoke travelling south towards Delhi-NCR and Indo-Gangetic Plains, making it a toxic cocktail.
The fires in Punjab were largely concentrated in Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts where 1,435 fires and 1,361 fires, respectively, have been recorded up to October 17 using satellite imagery. Patiala, Firozpur and Gurdaspur were the other districts that reported a high number of farm fires. The fires in Punjab are higher than last year and one of the reasons is an early start to the harvest season, claim PPCB officials.
Negligible rains in September prompted farmers to harvest non-basmati variety earlier than usual in order to make good of the small window to grow vegetables, state officials said. Another indication of the early harvest, officials said, was that over twice the quantum of paddy compared to 2019 had arrived in agriculture markets.
“There was hardly any rain in September and this made the weather ideal for harvesting the non-basmati variety of paddy in Amritsar and Tarn Taran. Many farmers cleared farms early to cultivate vegetables prior to wheat sowing. We have registered 1,002 cases against farmers for burning paddy straw and imposed environmental compensation to the tune of Rs.26.85 lakh,” said Krunesh Garg, Member Secretary, PPCB.
In Haryana, the pollution control board has recorded 2,678 fires so far and they were concentrated in Karnala, Kurukshetra, Kaithal and Ambala. HSPCB officials hinted that there was a likelihood of a spike as districts in the western part of the state such as Sirsa, Fatehabad, Hisar and Bhiwani account for a significant share of farm fires each year.
“In Haryana, the harvesting began a week to ten days in advance this year. The fire count is higher than 2019 and we are going to keep a close watch on developments in the western part of the state in the coming days and week, together with the agriculture department and district administrations,” said S Narayanan, Member Secretary, HSPCB.
Delhi-NCR air expected to deteriorate in coming days
Over the past weekend and on Monday, a slight uptick in wind speed had marginally improved air quality in Delhi-NCR, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research), agencies under the Ministry of Earth Sciences said.
“A change in surface wind direction is forecasted by the early 21st, which is likely to bring calm surface wind conditions leading to low ventilation index and deterioration of air quality index. Very poor air quality index is predicted for 21 and 22 October. The synergized stubble fire count for Punjab and Haryana stands at 1090,” SAFAR agency’s forecast said.