New Delhi, Sep 17 : Three states abutting the national capital had last year promised to stop burning agricultural waste in the wake of public uproar and a severe rap from the green court. That promise appears set to go up in smoke and Delhi's citizens are once again likely to choke on severe air pollution this Diwali.
Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are claiming to have taken several measures to discourage straw and stubble burning, but farmers say they have not received any assistance from their respective governments on an alternate method to clear the fields after the harvest.
The farmers IANS spoke to said the government's suggestions for the removal of straw stubble that remains after harvesting of crops -- mainly wheat and rice -- involve convoluted and costly processes and they have been left with no option but to set it on fire.
"It is almost impossible to remove straw manually. The government officials are asking us to stop burning it and use machines. However, we have not received any kind of financial help. Also, we cannot buy costly machines," said Pavitra Singh, a farmer from Mansa district of Punjab.
Given the very small window that exists between the rice harvesting season and the wheat sowing season, farmers are expected to burn the crop residue from early October.
This burning contributes significantly to increasing the concentration of particulate matter (PM) in the air in Delhi as the winds blow the smoke south. Adding to this, emissions from motor vehicles and smoke from the bursting of fire-crackers on Diwali (October 19) worsens the situation and leaves the capital choked and blanketed by smog.
Harpal Singh, President of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), said the farmers were already in financial distress due to poor returns for their agriculture produce and were hence in no position to do anything but burn the stubble.
"Removing the straw is a very tiresome process. Farmers do not have money to hire labourers, leave alone buying machines. How does the government expect farmers to spend additional money for removing the straw when they do not have funds for the basic preparations for farming? The government should come up with a viable alternative for disposal of crop residue," Harpal Singh said.
The Haryana government said it had collected Rs 19.38 lakh last winter as fines from farmers caught burning straw in their fields. However, this did not have any impact as the burning of stubble continued after the wheat crop was harvested this summer.
While the three states claimed they were making efforts to prevent the burning of stubble, the pace of work appears to be sluggish.
Haryana Agriculture Minister O.P. Dhankar said holding the state responsible for pollution in Delhi was "not logical" and yet the government had started creating awareness among farmers and working on a plan of biomass-fired power plants for effective disposal of agricultural waste.
"It is not logical to say that we are responsible for the air pollution in Delhi. It is a creation of its own. However, we are holding agriculture fairs across the state to dissuade farmers from burning straw," Dhankar told IANS.
"We are in talks with Indian Oil Company for the production of ethanol using agriculture waste. We are also preparing a policy to set up biomass plants that run on agriculture waste that will be bought from the farmers. If farmers get money, then they will stop burning the stubble," he said.
All these efforts will take four to five years to transform into reality, Dhankar added.
Unlike the stubble that remains after harvesting the wheat crop, rice straw cannot be used as fodder since it contains a huge amount of silica.
In November 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned the burning of crop residue in five states -- Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
Punjab, where paddy is grown on over three million hectares, sees a significant amount of straw being burnt in October, causing people in Delhi to bear the brunt.
Punjab Agriculture Secretary M.P. Singh said the government had taken "a large number" of measures but did not spell these out.
Meanwhile, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) appeared to be clueless about the progress of work undertaken by the state governments.
"We have sent an advisory to the states. We have heard that they are taking necessary action. Pollution during this Diwali is expected to go down," said Prashant Gargava, head of air quality management at the CPCB.
Gargava, however, refused to reveal the status of the action being taken by the states to control the burning of stubble.
(Saurabh Katkurwar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)