Smog alert for Delhiites: Season’s first stubble burning cases detected in Punjab, Haryana

New Delhi: Every year, as winter approaches, Delhiites’ fear of breathing in heavily polluted air pushes them to rush to medical stores to buy pollution masks.

This season’s first case of stubble burning has been reported from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, according to two officials familiar with the developments.

Stubble burning is regarded by experts as one of the principal reasons behind the alarming spike in air pollution levels in the National Capital Region every winter. More than 60 cases of stubble burning have been detected over the past week, from Haryana and Punjab, members of the state pollution control boards of the two states said.

The satellite monitoring of burning stubble, which is a post-monsoon phenomenon where farmers set fire to their paddy fields to get them ready for wheat sowing in November, will start from this week.

“In Haryana, all the 61 cases have been reported from Karnal district (140km from Delhi). We have lodged FIRs (first information report) in 26 cases so far. As much as Rs 90,000 has been collected from 35 farmers as fines,” S Narayanan, member secretary of the Haryana Pollution Control Board told HT.

“These are the first cases of crop-residue burning in Punjab this season. Two cases of stubble burning have been reported so far. While one was reported from Amritsar, the second one was detected in Patiala,” said Karunesh Garg, member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board.

A penalty of Rs 5,000 has been imposed on the Patiala farmer for burning crop residue, but the Amritsar case is still being verified, Garg told the national daily. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had imposed fines ranging between Rs 2,500 and Rs 15,000 on farmers to prevent them from burning crop residue, smoke from which was being carried towards Delhi by northwesterly winds.

“With the retreat of monsoon, the northwesterly winds start blowing in. This paves the way for a major chunk of the pollutants to reach Delhi and other cities located in the path of the winds,” said D Saha, a former head of the air quality laboratory at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

In the winter of 2017, while officials in Haryana detected around 12,657 stubble-burning cases through satellite mapping, in Punjab 43,814 cases were recorded. Chief ministers of the three states have been squabbling for the last two years over the impact of stubble burning on pollution levels in the Capital. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has insisted that it is one of the biggest reasons why the city becomes a “gas chamber” in the winter.

In 2017, the air quality in Delhi started dropping from the first week of October said PCB’s Air Quality Index (AQI). On October 8, it fell to 247, which is considered ‘poor’ according to the grading yardstick, then it deteriorated to 306 (‘very poor’) on October 17, and hit 486 (‘severe’) on November 9. This was when Delhi encountered thick smog for over a week, leading to the government declaring a public health emergency.

Delhi’s AQI has ranged between 50 and 150 this September, which is in the ‘satisfactory’ to ‘moderate’ range. According to CPCB, clean air is defined by an AQI of less than 50.

Since last year, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority has been empowered with a graded response action plan (Grap) to take emergency measures in the national capital to combat and counter pollution spikes.

Different reports by government and private researchers say that biomass burning, which includes stubble burning, causes 16% to 30% of Delhi’s pollution. Another report in August 2018 by the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) and Pune-based Automotive Research Association of India, however, said that only 4% of Delhi’s pollution during winter comes from agriculture waste burning.

Experts say that toxic fumes from fields on which crop residue has been burnt engulf Delhi, resulting in thick smog. On September 13, Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain wrote to his counterparts in Haryana and Punjab government requesting them to take preventive steps to stop stubble burning.

A study published by journal Springer in 2015 suggested that each ton of crop residue releases around 3kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460 kg of carbon dioxide, 199kg of ash and 2kg of sulphur dioxide.

“In 2017, crop residue burning incidents had dropped by nearly 46% compared to 2016. This time, we are expecting the figures to drop further as several measures are being taken from increasing vigil to subsidising machines. The super straw management system has been made mandatory with combined harvesters, which would help in managing the straw left behind in the field after harvest,” said Garg, reported the national daily.