Millennium Post

Horror from the farms

While Delhi is struggling to breathe, the farms of Punjab and Haryana remain ablaze – bereft of alternatives, caught in a vicious cycle and knee-deep in debt, the farmers’ wishfully burnt fields are only reflective of their slipping fates

While for most "the answer blows in the wind", for residents of Delhi, the wind, or more precisely, the entire air cover, brings only new questions, problems and reminders that apocalypse can very well be now. The air quality in the country's capital is an amalgamate of the air flowing in from its surrounding states. As an annual ritual, Delhi's neighbouring states indulge in petty politics over stubble burning while citizens here struggle to perform the most basic human function of breathing. Though undesirable, sources suggest that the number of stubble burning cases has spiked this year in Punjab when compared to the last, while it has marginally reduced in Haryana – of course, a plethora of cases has gone unreported. This is the dirty reality obfuscating Delhi's air this year, again.

A fellow political reporter covering Haryana elections had witnessed parali (stubble) burning and swiftly reported it to the local policeman who was, ironically, a witness standing beside her. The policeman (our prized protector of society) stood unfazed, watching the smoke rise like a tornado and drift away – probably to NCR.

The police have their justification on point: "We are constantly oscillating between election duty and farm fire reporting," said an officer refusing to be named. No doubt the life of a policeman is tough but given the hazards associated with air pollution, the shortfall of police personnel, that too in a grossly overpopulated country as ours, is inexcusable.

In fact, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab governments have received relief packages of Rs 137.84 crore, Rs 148.60 crore, and Rs 269.38 crore, respectively, from the Centre in 2018 to control stubble burning. The funds must have been spent efficiently, as official papers will suggest, just as other official documents also celebrate demonetisation as an effective exercise.

This year, unsurprisingly, the polls took a heavy toll on Delhi's air quality. Haryana's Karnal, which was in election mode from September, reported the highest number of farm fire cases (824) till October 20. On the following day, Haryana Chief Minister, Manohar Lal Khattar fought from Karnal in the state assembly elections and won comfortably with a margin of 45,188 votes. As of October 25, at least 85 complaints had been lodged against farmers for stubble burning, of which 51 were filed in Karnal. According to local police: "Since the state was busy with election work, action in the 51 cases was delayed." Clearly, our democracy – pivoted on the idea of 'for the people' – is no greater than a conglomerate of meaningless muscle-flexors looking only to thump chests on election victory without an iota of concern 'for the people'.

As of October 29, Haryana witnessed 3,978 cases of farm fires while last year, the total number of cases reported was 4,147 – of which Karnal, Kaithal and Kurukshetra reported 843, 864, and 667 incidents of stubble burning, respectively.

In Punjab, a source said: "The farmers are often swayed by union political bodies that instigate them to set crop stubble on fire, reminding them that in a matter of a week they need to sow a fresh set of crops. Union workers are often a slimy set of people. After instigating the farmers, they will tip off the local police and ask for money for being a temporary informant. And when officers come inquiring, they slide into the shadow only to be seen once the matter has subsided."

A report stated that Punjab has witnessed an increase of around 25 per cent in farm fires. According to data from the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), the state recorded 9,600 incidents of stubble burning till October 27 last year. This year, between September 23 and October 27, the figure shot up to 12,027 – a whopping increase of 2,427 from last year. Tarn Taran Sahib alone reported 1,863 incidents of farm fires while Ferozpur and Patiala recorded 1,248 and 1,236 cases, respectively.

Karunesh Garg, member-secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, said: "This year, the harvesting began around a week earlier as compared to last year. That's the reason the number of farm fires looks big. I am sure the total figure at the end of the harvesting period will be much smaller."

Another vicious trap

Burning leftover crop residue is a crime under the Indian Penal Code and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981. Despite this, farmers in Punjab and Haryana continue to burn the leftover paddy due to the absence of viable alternatives.

A report has documented that so far, in Punjab, over 43,000 machines have been distributed to farmer's groups and Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs), and the state government is set to give away another 10,000 this year. But what's the point in crying over spilt milk – in this case, flown air?

In Haryana so far, machines have been sold to 232 centres and 2,000 individual farmers. Rajpal Khatri, a mustard farmer in Narela – a tehsil in north Delhi, bordering Haryana – says that the stubble that is separated by the machine is useless. "Few zamindars have machines like Happy Seed and not everyone has the resources for it. When we cut the harvest by hand, we cut in such a way that the straw remains useful for glass factories that come and purchase it from us. But when the machine is used, it separates the grain from the stalk without care and the leftover is of no value to anyone – animals do not eat it, factory people do not want it, and it doesn't even rot easily. What option do we really have? I have tried raising this issue but who listens to people like us?"

The people of the national capital can resonate with Khatri. With each flick of the calender, the air quality dips from 'very poor' to 'severe' and worse; some reports hit headlines for a week or maybe two, environment reporters have lots to write about and politicians have even more to talk about – but again, "who listens to us"?

Pardeep Meel, deputy director of Kurukshetra explained: "Not all machines are effective in every condition. For instance, it isn't as effective in fields where vegetables are grown. The other thing is that Happy Seed only works at certain levels of moisture. If there is more or less moisture in the soil, it will not cut the stubble."

While Punjab and Haryana are the known culprits, Delhi isn't just a victim – its borders too witness illegal stubble burning. Hailing from a land-tilling family, Ravinder Singh grows wheat and rice on the borders of Delhi and Haryana, with a majority of his land falling in Delhi. He says: "You don't feel that you are in another state, there are lush green paddy fields on either side of the road. It is quite beautiful, especially right before harvesting. People say we have alternatives but do we? Where should I take the straw and go? Where will I store it?"

For Delhiites, who await their weekend getaways to bask in the calm and beauty of paddy fields, come October and they are greeted with the sight of terror and tears emanating from farm fires.

Given the circumstances – poverty, lack of education and then the difficult decision of picking between a rudimentary matchbox or investing in a half-successful Happy Seed machine – farmers are left with as little choice as Delhiites who must breathe, no matter the consequence.

Aaisha Sabir

Aaisha Sabir

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