Delhi air in trouble again: Should farm fires be in focus

Satellite images show fire spots in severa places in Punjab, Haryana

By Shagun
Published: Friday 30 April 2021
Last straw to stubble burning by Sunita Narain. Illustration: Ritika Bohra

Delhi’s air quality deteriorated from ‘moderate’ to ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ on Thursday (April 29). It will be oscillating between ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ for the next three days, according to the SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) system of the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences. 

The air quality index (AQI) in Delhi on Friday was 287, an improvement from Wednesday’s 312 and Thursday’s 296. 

An AQI of 0-50 is considered ‘good’, 51-100 ‘satisfactory’, 101-200 ‘moderate’, 201-300 ‘poor’, 301-400 ‘very poor’, and 401-500 ‘severe’. Above 500 is the ‘severe-plus’ or ‘emergency’ category.   

Delhi’s air typically worsens in October-November and improves by March-April.

Current weather conditions are not unfavourable, unlike in winter. Hence, apart from local emissions, the deterioration in air quality is being attributed to an increase in fire counts, mostly due to burning of wheat crop stubble in northern India.

On Friday, the estimated fire counts were 1,500, up from 1,300 a day ago.

Satellite images released by the United States National Aeronautical and Space Administration revealed high fire counts on Friday in areas like

  • Patiala
  • Bhatinda
  • Sangrur
  • Jalandhar
  • Faridkot
  • Barnala
  • Kurukshetra
  • Kaithal
  • Karnal
  • Sonipat
  • Panipat
  • Rohtak

Fires were also spotted Lahore, Gujranwala and Hafizabad in Pakistan.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast that the air quality would remain ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ the next few days due to transported dust and biomass-burning aerosol in the National Capital region and surroundings. 

Deteriorating air quality is worrying amid an increasing number of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and deaths. Medical experts have, from time to time, raised concerns about how high pollution levels can worsen the situation and aggravate respiratory conditions of the public. 

An official of the Haryana Pollution Control Board said the department was unable to monitor fires as it wasn’t receiving satellite data from the state’s agriculture department: “Directions to field officials have been issued but nothing can be done until we know active fire locations.”

The delay in getting data is due to a change in remote-sensing agency. The state agriculture department and the Haryana Space Applications Centre (HARSAC) have been at loggerheads over fire data after the former said data provided by HARSAC was misleading and the fire locations were not found during field visits. 

Following this, the department decided to directly collect data through Indian Agricultural Research Institute. 

“Earlier, at least there was EPCA [Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority] that shared data with until it was dismantled. Currently, we are not being able to monitor,” the official said. 

Officials also blamed a shortage of workers to cut wheat straw and lockdown-like measures in various areas.

In Punjab, district-level committees were monitoring stubble burning, claimed Krunesh Garg, member-secretary, Punjab Pollution Control Board:

“There are district level committees with different nodal officers who are supposed to visit places where such farm fires happen, based on satellite information, and impose an environment compensation / fine but so far due to COVID one or two fines have been made because there is already panic among farmers.”

The wheat season is not followed by intensive farm fires, unlike paddy harvesting, as managing wheat stubble is comparatively easy and wheat straw is processed into cattle feed by most farmers, he added.

Delhi should look at local emissions instead of focusing on farm fires, according to him: “Even the wind direction is not towards Delhi. So how come Punjab fires are impacting Delhi air quality?”

According to SAFAR modeling, transport-level wind direction was not very favourable for fire-related intrusion, which has led to improvements in air quality in Delhi in the last two days.


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