Delhi

Waiting for the dust to settle

Smoke alarm: Crop residue set afire in a field on the outskirts of Fatehabad in Haryana.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Thirty-year-old Babita Anand, the coordinator for Daffodils Public School in Haryana’s Fatehabad district, around 250 km from the Capital, heard the word “smog” for the first time over a week ago when a deadly mixture of fog and smoke engulfed the little-known town on November 6, reducing visibility to near zero and bringing life to a standstill.

“The school bus driver had to halt the vehicle for almost five minutes as he could not see the road. It was as if the sky was raining smoke,” said Ms. Anand, a resident of M.C. Colony, recalling the morning of November 6.

Unprecedented situation

“It wasn’t fog but smoke as I didn’t feel cold but felt suffocated,” she added.

The unprecedented situation forced the district administration to reschedule opening and closing of schools with immediate effect due to high levels of pollution for the first time in the history of this town.

Rakhi Narang, the Public Relations Officer at the school, said the timings are usually rescheduled towards December-end due to fog but this happened in November this year due to pollution. She feared the situation will deteriorate in the years to come with increase in population and traffic.

Sandeep Hooda, the school’s physical training instructor who stays at the nearby Bodia village, said the situation was so bad that for the first time in his life he saw people wearing masks in Fatehabad. He said it took him nearly 50 minutes to travel 5 km to the school on his motorcycle due to the smog.

“Fog usually envelopes the city towards the end of the year and stubble burning is over by mid-November. However, the fog came in earlier this time and engulfed the entire town,” said Mr. Hooda, adding that pollution was still not an issue for the locals and there was lack of awareness of its impact on health.

Menu, a parent, said her son Naksh and many other children complained of irritation in the eyes and suffocation but the situation has improved now.

Class X student Manoj Soni said many of his classmates had a sore throat and felt irritation in the eyes. “It [the pollution] is always there during this time of the year due to stubble burning but it felt worse this time,” said Manoj.

School Principal Mamta Makkar said the situation prevailed for three days till November 8 and improved only on November 9. Ms. Makkar, who relocated to Fatehabad four years ago, said she never encountered such a problem earlier.

Smoke alarm: Students play volleyball at Daffodils Public School in Fatehabad.

Smoke alarm: Students play volleyball at Daffodils Public School in Fatehabad.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

 

Recent pile-ups

“Pollution has been on the rise for the past several years. And instances of diseases like dengue are also on the rise. On the first day of the smog, there were several instances of pile-ups involving 10-15 vehicles. I got phone calls from several parents saying they were not sending their wards to school. The buses and teachers also arrived late. We even had to call off the morning assembly,” said Ms. Makkar.

Surender Singh, a teacher at a government high school in Matana village, explained that the region had come to be known as the State’s paddy belt over the past decade with increase in irrigation facilities due to canal water and increase in the number of tube wells.

Fatehabad, along with Karnal, Kurukshetra and Kaithal, is among the top six paddy producing districts of Haryana and these four districts also contribute to 80% of total cases of stubble burning.

Stubble burning still on

Raunak Singh, the physical education teacher at Matana School, said paddy replaced the traditional crops of gram and cotton over the past few years, with paddy commanding a higher price in the market.

“Soil fertility has reduced. Cotton and gram are not popular among farmers any more,” added Mr. Singh.

Munish, a Class X student from Matana, said almost 40% of farmers in his village set crop residue on fire despite the ban. “We are told in the school assembly to eat jaggery and drink lots of water to boost immunity. We are also told about the harmful effects of crop burning,” said the teenager.

Fatehabad Deputy Commissioner Hardeep Singh said there is enough awareness among farmers on prevailing laws against stubble burning and its detrimental effect on soil fertility. However, he added, the farming community still sees short-term monetary gains in burning crop residue.

Over 2,000 instances of stubble burning have been recorded in Fatehabad by the Haryana Space Applications Centre via satellite this season.

‘Farmers prefer fine’

Mr. Singh said a fine of over ₹9.67 lakh was imposed on 301 farmers this year so far and ₹45,000 has been recovered. He said the local administration was in the process of identifying repeat offenders and that they will be prosecuted.

Fatehabad Agriculture Department Deputy Director Balwant said the administration had even invited farmers’ self help groups (SHGs) to purchase equipment for disposing of stubble at 40% subsidy but the response was poor.

“These SHGs can then rent out the equipment to other farmers to dispose of crop residue. However, only four such groups came forward,” he said.

Mr. Singh said farmers preferred to pay the fine, which is ₹2,500 per instance of stubble burning, than incur the cost of over ₹3,500 to dispose of crop residue. He added that storing and disposing of the residue was also a problem for farmers using new technology to cut and make bales of stubble. He said the issue can only be tackled when crop residue is put to some domestic or commercial use.


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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 6:36:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/waiting-for-the-dust-to-settle/article20370123.ece

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