As the paddy harvest, the key Kharif (summer) season crop, gains pace in Punjab, the perennial problem of stubble burning, an aggravator of air pollution, is also on the rise. The State has so far witnessed 656 farm fire incidents, up by around 63% against the corresponding period of the previous year.
The Punjab Pollution Control Board data shows that during the ongoing Kharif season (September 15-November 30) as many as 656 cases of farm fire occurrence have been reported in the State till October 4. By comparison, the same period last year saw only 415 such incidents. The data, based on satellite imagery, reflects a rise of 241 cases. The numbers are even more stark when seen in light of the fact that by October of 2021, only 260 farm fire incidents had been recorded.
The district of Amritsar was the worst hit with 429 farm fire cases, while Tarn Taran Sahib district stands second with 88 such cases. According to the data, Kapurthala district recorded 39 farm fire incidents and is in a distant third on the list. Paddy has been planted in about 31 lakh hectares of land in Punjab this year, and its procurement has also started across the State.
Stubble burning around autumn every year has been one of the contributing factors to air pollution across the country’s northern region including the national capital and surrounding areas.
With these spikes in the number of farm fire cases, the Punjab Government’s commitment to reducing paddy stubble burning incidents by at least 50% this year, in accordance with its State Action Plan, appears to be an uphill task. Farmer outfits in Punjab have already made it clear to the State Government that although they are against the burning of stubble, without a viable alternative, or financial incentive, they would have no option but to continue with the status quo.
Chairman of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, Dr. Adarsh Pal Vig, on Wednesday, said the different departments of the State Government are making collective and coordinated efforts to curb stubble burning. “We are focusing on both in-situ and ex-situ methods of managing the crop residue. Steps are being taken to create awareness and persuasion among farmers to not go for stubble burning. Also, necessary action as per law would be taken if needed,” he said.
In Punjab, the ban and action against people burning crop residue are regulated under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. The Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has been imposing penalties on farmers who have been found involved in the burning of crop residue, following the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order of 2015, which bans stubble burning.
Mr. Vig added that there are around 12 districts in the State that are ‘hot spots’ of farm fire incidents, and the government intends to bring down cases in these areas by at least 50%, and attempts would be made to eliminate paddy stubble burning cases this year in around six districts, where the cases are on relatively lower side. “This year, we have also decided to reward and honour those farmers who have been staying away from stubble burning in a bid to encourage other farmers to follow their footsteps,” he said.
The paddy crop, which is harvested with combine harvester machines, leaves behind a stubble on the farm. In order to destroy this stubble farmers find setting the crop residue on fire to be the most ‘effective and cheap’ method; this allows them to prepare the farm for sowing of the next winter crop. The short window between the harvesting of paddy and the sowing of wheat — just about three weeks — is one of the primary reasons why farmers resort to stubble burning.
For the management of crop residue, the Punjab Government is providing subsidies on the purchase of other crop residue management (CRM) machines, including surface seeders — an in-situ paddy stubble management device. The State Government has already mandated for brick kilns to use stubble as fuel as well as other plants to buy stubble from farmers. Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has also urged the Union Government for remunerative solutions to farmers to stop the practice of stubble burning.
Farmers across Punjab annually face the challenge of managing nearly 20 million tonnes of paddy straw. It is estimated that over 15 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in the open fields to clear the land for sowing wheat. The indiscriminate burning of left-over stubble has become a pollution hazard resulting in various kinds of environmental problems, huge nutritional loss of soil, and health-related troubles.