This year, Delhi’s air quality started to worsen since the end of September with both PM2.5 and PM10 level showing a gradual rise.
Moreover, the implementation of graded response action plan to curb air pollution, which was earlier scheduled for October 15, will now happen on October 18. So, will the city once again be choked by deadly smog? A lot depends on its neighbouring states and how they address the issue of crop residue burning.
In both Haryana and Punjab, the state governments’ claims of offering support to farmers to prevent them from burning crop residue have been questioned. While Haryana government claims that they are holding awareness camps in villages and farmers are being offered subsidies up to Rs 63,000 on equipment to help clear crop stubbles without burning, reports suggest that stubble burning incidents continue unabated with farmers complaining of getting no help from the local authorities. Moreover, the authorities reportedly harassed marginal farmers in Panipat district by imposing fines for burning crop residue.
Similarly, the Punjab government claimed that it has adopted farmers from Kalar Majri—a ‘model’ village in the Patiala district and given them incentives to stop stubble burning. However, its claims were contested by the farmers in Sangrur district, who reportedly burned stubble to protest state government’s inaction.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), on October 11, asked the Punjab government to bring the farmers who were given incentives to prevent them from burning crop residue. The tribunal had banned crop burning in 2015 to reduce air pollution in the National Capital Region. It had asked the government to help farmers manage the crop residue.
While issuing a slew of directions to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh on September 22, the Delhi High Court noted that the “emission of particulate matter from this stubble burning is beyond any acceptable human endurance...”.
Going by the latest satellite images, crop residue fires, which began in late September, intensified since October 7. Wind directions and indicative images show smoke dispersion in southeast direction over eastern Uttar Pradesh and NCR. In Punjab, the fires are concentrated in and around Amritsar, Firozpur, Faridkot and Fatehgarh Sahib districts. In Haryana, they are concentrated around Kaithal, Kurukshetra and Karnal districts.
Fires have also been spotted in the northern districts of central Uttar Pradesh: Moradabad, Rampur, Pilbhit, Bareilly and Shahjahanpur. These have started only in the second week of October. It must be noted that these districts are located in the direction in which the wind is blowing towards the NCR region.
According to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) study during 2008–09, the stubble burning results in loss of nutrients present in residues. In one year alone, it results in the loss of 1.43 million tonnes of nutrients from the topsoil layer. On top of that, it causes a spike in pollution. A detailed coverage on stubble burning by Down To Earth earlier this year revealed that PM emissions from crop burning in a single year is more than 17 times the total annual PM pollution in Delhi from all sources, including vehicles, industries, garbage burning. For CO2 and SO2, the national annual emission from crop residue burning is more than 64 times and five times higher than the total annual CO2 and SO2 emissions in Delhi.
The source of the problem has long been identified: multiple cropping and shorter intervals between crops, mechanised harvesters leaving stubble of 10–30 cm in the field, shortage of farm labour and lack of market for crop residue.
Thus, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment argues that imposing fine/penalty farmers is not going to work. Instead, it proposes promotion of agri-implements with subsidy; utilisation of crop-residues fuel in biomass-based power plants, promotion of crop diversification, and research into the design of mechanical harvesters, which will reduce the length of the crop residue that remains on the field.