NEW DELHI/BHATINDA: There has been an increase in burning of wheat crop stubble in Punjab and Haryana this week compared with the previous one, Nasa's satellite pictures reveal. But the images also reveal a larger and more significant trend, the practice of crop-burning is down sharply in comparison with the same period last year.
Reports from the ground suggest the two state governments' firm approach seems to be working but major challenges lie in the days ahead as angry farmers demand a viable alternative to the practice.
Nasa's FIRM web fire mapper, which uses satellite imagery to map instances of fires on the ground, shows a marked reduction in 'fire spots' in the two states in 2017 over the previous year. The same eight-day period (April 27-May 4, both days included) was used to make the comparison.
The practice of burning of crop stubble after the kharif (October-November) and rabi (April-May) seasons in the two states is seen as a major contributor to air pollution in the region, including Delhi-NCR.
Air quality in Delhi is another indicator of reduced crop burning this year. A comparison of an eight-day AQI average (April 27-May 4, both days included) of 2016 and 2017 shows air in the capital this year has been far healthier than the last. AQI during the period this year has been in the moderate zone (176) while it was 'very poor' last year at 307. Of course, weather conditions as well as raging forest fires in Uttarakhand also contributed to air pollution in Delhi last year.
Last year's pattern, as seen in the satellite images, reveals that crop-burning peaked in the first week of May and started abating around May 12. This would suggest that there could yet be a spike in crop fires.
There are mixed reports from the ground on crop-burning. "Farmers are afraid to burn their wheat stubbles this year because of the administration's threat of action and fines," Ruby Singh Sandhu, a farmer from Ellenabad in northwest Haryana, said on phone.
In Punjab, many farmers have been protesting against the tough orders on crop-burning. At many places, farmers have been openly defying the directions and burning the straw, despite the theat of cases and fines.
Farmers are demanding a compensation of Rs 2,000 per acre and eight-hour power supply to help prepare the fields through farm machinery without burning straw. They have threatened to start burning wheat stubble collectively from May 10 if the demands aren't met.
Wheat was sown in nearly 35 lakh hectares in Punjab and state expects a bumper harvest this year.
The state pollution control board, agriculture department and the districts are keeping a watch over burning of straw through remote sensing. Nearly 200 farmers have been fined in various districts till May 3. On Thursday, seven farmers were fined Rs 17,500 for burning straw in Muktsar district.
The state has fixed a fine of Rs 2,500 for burning straw in fields up to 2 acres, Rs 5,000 for farms up to 5 acres and Rs 15,000 for those over 5 acres. Most of the fines slapped so far have been on fields below 5 acres, said a state government official.
"The Adesh institute of medical sciences and research (AIMSR) had in January 2016 carried out an extensive study to document the health impacts of stubble burning and found that smoke caused by burning of agriculture waste was adversely affecting the quality of life of farmers. It showed that nearly 85% people from all age groups suffered from one or the other health problems because of the smoke," said Vittul K Gupta, associate professor at AIMSR.
An agriculture department official said the state government has offered up to 50% subsidy on various implements as an alternative to straw burning. "We have even demanded suggestions from farmers for measures to be adopted to contain menace of straw burning," he said.
While the next few weeks would be a challenge for the state administration, the bigger task will be to reduce fires after the kharif crop later this year.
"Most of the wheat stubble is used for fodder. What remains is just a stalk that burns up fast or can be mixed with the soil with relative ease. Hotter weather in April-May also dispersed the smoke faster," said Sandhu.
Burning of paddy stubble is much more widespread. And, it takes place in October-November, when colder weather results in smoke hanging in the air for longer and even travelling with air currents to Delhi-NCR and beyond.