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Delhi chokes, Haryana’s burning fields smoke

| | Karnal/Kurukshetra
Delhi chokes, Haryana’s burning fields smoke

For the edification of those looking for the epicentre of the air pollution epidemic in the Capital, the stocks of (now banned) firecrackers in the cheek by jowl retail outlets of Chandni Chowk or the wholesale market of Sadar Bazaar are not where it’s at.

If you really want to know, ground zero for the smog enveloping Delhi-NCR with Diwali still six days away, is a nondescript village called Taraori in Haryana’s Karnal district. Crop stubble is being burnt night and day here, an activity which, along with the other fields set alight to clear crop residue for the next sowing season across rural Haryana and Punjab, is estimated to cause up to 35 per cent of the pollutants in Delhi’s air for a six-week period in winter.

And it’s an open secret in Taraori. “We need our land for vegetable cultivation. There is no other way available to us other than burning the paddy straw to clear our fields,” Ramnath Singh, a farmer, told The Pioneer, while sowing potatoes in his burnt out field. He is not alone. Vast tracts of agricultural fields have been set on fire by farmers in Karnal, Kurukshetra and Panipat who claim they are left with no other option but to burn the paddy stubble to prepare their fields for the next harvest.

Smoke billowing from burning paddy stubble had created a haze of smog that can be seen covering the sky and moving towards the national Capital. NASA images too show stubble burning going on in the fields of Haryana and Punjab, though the farmers claim ignorance for obvious reasons.

Off the record, Haryana farmers are adamant and say they will not abide by any administrative diktat to stop burning of paddy stubble, regardless of the fact that the level of pollutant values on the National Ambient Air Quality Index (NAQI) is becoming a serious concern for authorities.

SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research), a unit of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) on Friday raised the red flag and marked the level of Suspended Particu-late Matters (SPMs) as “Red”.

All the farmers spoken to by The Pioneer were fully aware that burning paddy husk has been banned. And the authorities are making some efforts to check the practice. So the fields are now being set alight at night and the farmers feign ignorance when officials of the State Government tasked with preventing crop stubble burning arrive in their part of the world bright and early each morning.

It would, however, be too simplistic to make farmers the sole villains of the piece. They too have their livelihood concerns. Many of the farmers spoken to explained the rationale behind stubble burning. They said they do not have the money to invest in mechanised clearing of their fields and burning was the cheapest method. “If the Government and courts are really serious about preventing us from burning crop stubble we should be compensated for using other more expensive means of doing so,” said a farmer from Karnal who did not want to be named. “Paddy straw does not decompose on its own. We cannot remove it using tractors, and doing so manually is very, very expensive and time consuming,” he added.

Accepting that stubble burning is a major cause of pollution for the NCR, officials in Haryana said they have started to enforce the order against the practice. Karmchand, the Deputy Director (Agriculture) of Kurukshetra told The Pioneer, “In the rabi season of 2017, we penalised 54 farmers and the total penalty generated was Rs 1,45,000; in the kharif season of 2016, 207 farmers were penalised and we collected Rs 4,58,000 in fines.” Small recompense, that, for burning lungs. “Farmers are stubborn and burn agricultural waste as they want to prepare the land for cultivation in a short span of 24 hours,” Karamchand added.

According to another official, burning straw, husk or biomass started when agricultural labourers stopped working in private fields as they got paid more for working for the Government’s MNREGA scheme. According to one estimate, 33 per cent of all agricultural labourers have left their jobs to work on construction projects under MNREGA.

Farmers of Ramba, the village adjacent to Taraori, said in unison: “We cannot be bothered about your issues of air pollution when our survival is at stake. The authorities can arrest us or penalise us but we will not stop stubble burning. Added Ramesh, a local resident and farmer: “And why is the Government ignoring the pollution generated by rice mills? They too are responsible. Why are only farmers being targeted?”

There is, however, a silver lining albeit a faint one. In Barana, another village in Kurukshetra, farmers have set an example by adopting the modern agricultural methods. “With the use of rotators, reaper binders, reversible ploughs, mulchers and straw shedders farmers are being able to clear fields without generating pollution. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

 
 
 
 
 

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