Winter smog and air toxicity have become an annual affair in Delhi. And as we speak, millions of Delhiites are struggling with it, breathing air which is laden with toxic contents.
The national capital’s air quality on Thursday morning worsened to the “severe” category, according to Central Pollution Control Board data. At 8 am, Delhi was India’s most polluted region. Its air quality index, or AQI, was 419 at that time. Air pollution at that level is not only a serious problem for those with existing diseases, it also affects healthy people. News reports said that people were complaining of choking and a burning sensation in their eyes. Against this backdrop, the Delhi government has implemented curbs on polluting activities under the Graded Response Action Plan, or GRAP.
The overall air quality in Delhi was likely to remain in the severe category from the 3rd to the 5th of November. It was also likely to remain in the severe to very poor category on the 6th. The overall outlook from the 4th to 9th of November was that air quality would likely remain in the very poor category. This is what the Centre’s Air Quality Early Warning System for Delhi had to say in its 3rd November bulletin.
By Sunday, over a quarter of Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution was coming from stubble burning in neighbouring states.
For some time now, paddy straw burning in Punjab and Haryana has been a major reason for the high pollution levels in the national capital in October and November. Farmers set their fields on fire to quickly clear off the crop residue. This year, however, farm fires in Punjab have come in for increased criticism. On Wednesday, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted that there was no doubt that farm fires in Punjab had turned Delhi into a “gas chamber”.
The minister also highlighted how Haryana had seen a drop in such incidents. Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has blamed the Centre for rising incidents of stubble burning in Punjab.
While the politicians duke it out, let us see what the data has to say. Punjab’s cumulative farm fire cases between the 15th of September and first of November in 2022 rose over 18 per cent, compared to the same period in 2021.
Meanwhile, Haryana saw a 31 per cent drop. And, at almost 18,000 burning events, Punjab clocked over eight times as many incidents as Haryana did during this period in 2022. These were the findings of ICAR’s November 1st bulletin after monitoring paddy residue burning in India using satellite remote sensing.
So, what did Haryana get right? As the state strives towards zero burning in the next few years, it adopted a multi-pronged approach to address the issue this season. Reports said Haryana carried out extensive campaigns on the ill-effects of stubble burning and promoted three particular machines that help in disposing of crop waste. The government provides farm machinery for stubble management on 80% subsidy to Custom Hiring Centers.
Stubble management machines were deployed extensively in October and November in 351 identified villages in the red zone where six or more active fires were reported in the kharif 2021 season. To prevent crop residue burning and to ensure machinery available with farmers and custom hiring centres is utilised to full capacity, three officials in red zone villages and one in 753 yellow zone villages were deputed. A district level control centre reported active fire locations on a real-time basis so nodal officers on the field could immediately douse them. Farmers also get a 50 rupee per quintal incentive amount and subsidy on straw management equipment for making stubble bales.
Then what about Punjab? CM Kejriwal recently said that the Centre had rejected a plan to give a 2,500-rupee per-acre cash incentive to farmers to curb stubble burning. Under the joint Delhi and Punjab government proposal, sent to the Centre in July, the two states would contribute 500 rupees each and the Centre would contribute 1,500 towards the incentive. The Centre rejected the proposal, saying that it was providing subsidised machinery to farmers for the on-site management of paddy straw. Farmers say a cash incentive would help them cover the cost of fuel used in such machines. But, are there any other reasons that Punjab can’t put out the stubble fires like Haryana has?
One possible solution can be giving a separate cash incentive to farmers in Haryana and Punjab every year for paddy stubble management. Authorities can measure the programme’s success, and if they find that farmers have not stopped burning stubble after two to three years, they can take action against them. For such a plan to work, all the stubble burning states, Delhi and the Centre must sit down and thrash out a solution. The ideal amount of incentive, the manner in which it will be given, and the share of the states and the Centre will also need to be agreed upon. The bottom line is that a durable solution must be found to ‘Gas chamber Delhi’.