Farmers set fire to fields around the Indian capital despite a ban imposed two years ago
Autumn still brings the choking smoke of burning crops to Delhi
Every autumn, a shroud of smoke settles over Delhi, leaching the blue from the sky and corroding the lungs of residents in the planet’s most polluted capital city. Although vehicles and power plants throw up a lot of this smoke, the rest of it comes from burning fields many kilometres away.
Defying the law, farmers in the states around Delhi set fire each year to acres and acres of stubble left behind after the rice harvest, trying to quickly clear their fields for the sowing of wheat.
The smoke from these fires is sometimes so thick that it obscures whole towns from the view of satellites. In the capital, flights are grounded and the air quality index plummets.
Experts differ on how much these fires contribute to Delhi’s air pollution, which is blamed for at least eight premature deaths each day and impaired lung function in nearly half of the city's children. Last year, Anil Dave, then India’s environment minister, said burning paddy stubble caused 20 per cent of the air pollution in the capital at this time of year; an official in the earth sciences ministry said it could constitute as much as 70 per cent on some days.
Delhi is particularly affected by the fires in the states of Haryana and Punjab, where roughly 35 million tonnes of paddy residue are burnt each year.
According to Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist for the weather forecasting service Skymet, this is because of weather systems that prevail over northern India in autumn.
“The winds are primarily from the north-west, so the smoke is carried over the city,” he said.
Other factors compound the problem.
“There’s a little mist, so the smoke particles get entangled in that moisture and form a layer of smog over Delhi. The temperatures are dropping, so the smoke doesn’t rise. And the winds aren’t strong enough to blow the smog away altogether.”
The burning of fields was banned two years ago by the National Green Tribunal, a government body that hears petitions pertaining to the environment, which set fines ranging from 2,500 rupees (Dh38.6) to 15,000 rupees per offence, depending upon the size of the fields.
But the practice continues. So far this year, 674 farm owners in Haryana and 398 in Punjab have been fined for setting fire to their fields.
The reason for this is economics, not tradition, said Jasjit Kang, an agronomist at Punjab Agricultural University.
“The rice stalk that is left over after harvest is around 8 to 12 inches high, and it doesn’t make for good animal fodder,” Mr Kang said. “Whereas if this was wheat, it would make sense to cut it and sell it as fodder.”
The farmers are racing against time as well: between the harvest of rice and the sowing of wheat, they have only 10-14 days to prepare the soil.
“There is machinery that can uproot the paddy stubble, or even sow the next wheat crop in between the old rows of paddy, and it can till and seed quickly enough,” Mr Kang said. “But that would cost farmers 1,500-3,000 rupees per acre. The poorer farmers wouldn’t own this sort of machinery, so they’d have to rent it — and enough machines may not be available for rent in that exact window of time.”
Hiring workers for the job would be even more expensive, roughly 4,000 rupees per acre, so many farmers prefer to simply set fire to the crop residue and risk being fined.
The green tribunal’s order two years ago also instructed state governments to give the farmers financial assistance to rent machines that uproot and pack the stubble into bales, which would then be sent to biomass power plants.
But the governments have not yet kept their promises to make these payments, Mr Kang said, and the burning of fields will not stop until the farmers can afford the baling machines.
In the meantime, the farmers in Punjab and Haryana are protected by politically powerful unions whose leaders have already indicated that any strong government action will be met with protests. “The unions don’t fear anyone,” Mr Kang said.
“I was driving on the highway today, and I saw big black patches on the fields on either side of me,” he said. “The burning is still going on.”