As smoke rises from fields, farmers turn a blind eye to health hazards

While people in urban areas say they face problems, most residents in villages say they have been burning stubble for years without any complications

As the debate over stubble burning and its contribution to rising levels of pollution rages in the national capital, the farmers in Punjab villages, who first inhale the plumes of smoke, say they are “habituated” to the hazards associated with the practice.

Most of the older farmers in the villages of Barnala district said they have been setting paddy stubble on fire for over 30 to 35 years now, but they do not have any health problems as the smoke blows away within an hour.

Anumita Roychowdhury, head of ‘Clean Air’ programme at Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, who has been working on measures to curb air pollution for over two decades, said this lack of concern is worrying. “Common wisdom tells us that the farmers who burn the stubble and people in the immediate vicinity have higher exposure to the smoke. But we have not generated enough data on it and I have not seen any study on its effect,” she said.

Breathing problems

Rukpal Kaur, 30, a resident of Handiaya village in Barnala, pointed to the sky and said: “That white haze you see, that is not fog, it is smoke from stubble burning. When it increases, we know that someone nearby has set the stubble in his field on fire.”

Ms. Kaur, a mother of a five-month-old baby, said children suffer from breathing problems and even adults face difficulties due to stubble burning. “It [haze] will be there for one month and after that the sky will become clear,” she said. “Jaan hamein bhi pyari he, par majboori hai, jalana padega (we also love our life, but we are helpless; the stubble has to be burnt),” she added.

Though about 10 million metric tonnes of paddy stubble are burnt in Punjab every year, Ms. Kaur was among the few residents in Barnala villages who admitted that the plumes caused health problems.

Meanwhile, in Barnala town, nine of the 10 people interviewed by The Hindu — from a 13-year-old eight grader to 60-year-old hotelier — said they suffer from burning sensation in the eyes and breathing problems during the one-month-long stubble burning period.

In the evening, the town was shrouded by a white haze which increased towards the outskirts where stubble burning was not a rare sight.

Harbhajan Singh, 60, who runs a hotel, was born and brought up in Barnala town. “Last week, my brother-in-law came here from America for a marriage. He reached home in the evening and the first question he asked was about the smoke from the stubble burning. The next day he said he was facing breathing problems and went and bought a pack of six-seven masks.”

Mr. Singh said they too face eye irritation and throat infection but do not wear masks as they are “used to the smoke”. Mr. Singh and everyone else interviewed in the town said that the smoke starts after 3 p.m.

Taranjeet Singh, 13, said he notices the smoke every day during the 1-km-long walk back from school. “Around 3.30 p.m., the school gets over and while walking back I feel burning sensation in my eyes. My friends also face the problem, but we don’t talk about it much,” the teenager said.

Bavvi Singh, 35, who runs a general store in the town said, “My 70-year-old mother is an asthma patient and she doesn’t go out of the house much during this season.” “My eyes also burn from the smoke, but the farmers are helpless,” she added.

Ms. Roychowdhury said people have started talking about stubble burning and its affect on health of villagers. “The discussions around stubble burning should not be just Delhi-centric. We have to localise the concern and the local community should relate to the problem to find a solution to stubble burning,” the expert said.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 6:16:20 AM |

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