Could Air Pollution Crisis Come Early This Year?

A sudden spike in farm fires has prompted Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to write to his Haryana and Punjab counterparts.

New Delhi: With the arrival of the paddy harvesting season, there has been a sharp increase in the number of farm fires reported in Punjab. There were 107 fires between September 24 and 26 this year compared to just 11 in the same period last year, according to a report in The Hindu, an increase of almost ten times.

The higher number of fires is comparable to the figures reported in 2016 and 2017, when between September 27 and September 30, there were 106 and 150 fires respectively. Last year, due to the monsoon lasting much longer, the harvest was delayed, resulting in a decrease in the number of fires.

Krunesh Garg, member-secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board told The Hindu, “This year, harvesting of basmati varieties of rice has already begun and so the apparent rise in September.”

Crop burning is a common practice across Haryana and Punjab. To ready their fields for the rabi crop, farmers set fire to their fields to burn the stubble that remains after paddy has been harvested. It is known to worsen air pollution, especially in the National Capital Region. The trend picks up in late September, peaking towards the end of October.

Also Read: What Is the Solution to Punjab’s Paddy Stubble Burning Problem?

Last year, farm fires in Punjab started rising around October 5 and peaked in early November with over 4,000 fires reported in a single day. Overall, last year saw relatively fewer farm fires in September and October. But, fires peaked in November 2018 and were more in number compared to November 2017. Perhaps due to the delayed withdrawal of the monsoon, the harvest was delayed.

In the last ten days of September 2018, on the other hand, there were only 35 fires reported, compared to 107 in just one day this year.

Pattern of farm fires. Credit: Sarath Guttikunda, Urban Emissions

Kejriwal writes to Punjab, Haryana CMs

The sudden spike has sparked concerns around the impact the fires may have on air pollution and health. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Thursday wrote to the chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, urging them to prevent crop burning because it can adversely impact the air pollution in Delhi.

“There is little that the people of Delhi can do to fight pollution caused by crop stubble burning happening in Punjab and Haryana, which is a major contributor to pollution in Delhi in the months of October and November. We understand and appreciate the several initiatives that your government is taking in this regard, but I am sure you will agree that much more needs to be done,” Kejriwal wrote.

This problem is not restricted just to Delhi, but can be observed across most of north India. In early winter every year, the region suffers a significant spike in air pollution caused by a change in weather and wind patterns and an increase in crop burning in Haryana and Punjab.

As of now, the air quality in most parts of Delhi is moderate – by Indian standards, which are much more generous than global standards. Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium recorded PM10 pollutant – particles small enough to enter and lodge in lungs – level of 49 at 1 pm on Friday.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s standards, PM10 below 60 is considered ‘good’. The World Health Organisation prescribes a safe limit of 50.

During peak winter air pollution, the air pollution in Delhi is significantly worse than the current levels, with PM 10 levels frequently recorded upwards of 350. In the case of PM 2.5 pollutants, which are finer than PM 10 and can enter the bloodstream, pollution levels can cross 150.

Legislation to restrict use of groundwater

Efforts to curb groundwater use has worsened the crop burning situation in Punjab and Haryana, a recent study found. State governments in the two states introduced legislation to limit the use of groundwater during the sowing of paddy in May and June.

This has led to a delay in sowing as farmers have to wait for monsoon rains to arrive. The delayed sowing means a delayed harvest, which implies that farmers have a narrow period of time between harvesting rice harvest and planting the rabi crop. Therefore, farmers choose to burn the residue in the fields to prepare it for the next crop.

Also Read: Laws Meant to Save Water Unexpectedly Led to More Air Pollution: Study

Last year, writing for The Wire, Lovish Garg also pointed out that the root cause of the problem lies in the fact that paddy is not a native crop of Haryana and Punjab. It was introduced during the green revolution, when it was sown in large tracts of land in these states.

But 5,337 litres of water are required to grow one kilogram of paddy in Punjab, compared to just 2,605 litres in West Bengal, a natural habitat. There lies the root of the cyclical problem. The water-guzzling paddy crop has led to a groundwater crisis in these states, which in turn forced the governments to bring legislation to curb the use of groundwater. This eventually intensified the problem of crop burning.

The final outcome is a health crisis which prevails in most parts of north India, caused by air pollution from burning crops.