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Why November has brought back Delhi pollution with a vengeance after ‘cleaner’ October

More than 33,000 fire spots were observed in Punjab & Haryana in the first eight days of November, according to data from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System.

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New Delhi/Bengaluru: Saw a less polluted and more breathable October than usual? But found the toxic demons of Delhi winter return with a vengeance in November? Here’s why.

More than 33,000 fire spots — presumably farm fires — were observed in Punjab and Haryana in the first eight days of November, according to satellite imagery data from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). This is the highest for November in five years.

At the same time, the two states observed close to 18,000 fire spots in October, the lowest for the month since 2012. 

Farm fires in Punjab and Haryana — resulting from the burning of crop residue to prepare farms for Rabi sowing and tackle pests — is believed to be one of the factors stoking the dense smog that envelops north India every winter and leaves residents struggling to breathe. 

It adds to the general air pollution, which, aided by north India’s geography, creates the ideal conditions for smog. 

The average air quality index (AQI) of Delhi in the first 9 days of November was 378, which qualifies as “very poor”.

However, Delhi experienced relatively cleaner air this October. The average AQI in October this year was 173, which is categorised as “moderate”. The average AQI for October in the past five years was 265 — or “poor” — which, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is bad enough to cause breathing discomfort on prolonged exposure.

The relative October lull and November surge in stubble burning this year can be attributed to erratic rains that threw the farming calendar out of gear.

Also Read: 80% Delhi-NCR families have at least 1 member ailing due to air pollution, new survey says

Cleaner October 

Developed in 2007, NASA’s FIRMS aims to provide “near real-time active fire locations to natural resource managers that faced challenges obtaining timely satellite-derived fire information”.

The FIRMS website states that in most cases the fires flagged “are vegetation fires, but sometimes it is a volcanic eruption or the flare from a gas well”. 

The maps released by FIRMS show a drastic shift between satellite imagery of north India from mid-October and that for November, going from clear to dense with fire spots — denoted in red colour. 

Farm fire trajectory in northwestern India from 1 October to 8 November | Source: NASA FIRMS
Farm fire trajectory in northwestern India from 1 October to 8 November | Source: NASA FIRMS


FIRMS data suggests October accounted for only a third of the total farm fires produced by the two states from 1 October to 8 November. In 2020, about 32,000 farm fires were reported in the same region in this period and, in 2019, the figure was 22,000.

In the first 8 days of November, close to 33,000 fire spots were observed in the region this year. In the same time period, there were about 32,000 farm fires in 2020, about 18,000 in 2019, around 25,000 in 2018, and 16,000 in 2017.

Why fires rose in November 

India has three cropping seasons — Kharif (monsoon), Rabi (winter), and Zaid (summer). 

Kharif crops like maize, rice, soy, millets, tea, and cotton, are sowed in June and harvested in October. These require a lot of water. 

This is followed by the Rabi season, where crops like wheat, mustard, rapeseed, oats, and barley are sown by mid-November and harvested in April and May. These require colder temperatures and less water. 

This year, delayed monsoon showers pushed the sowing time for paddy back, and unseasonal rains in October forced the government to postpone procurement by at least 10 days as the crop was found to have a higher-than-permissible moisture content.

This delayed the harvest, which, in turn, reduced the time left for sowing the next crop. 

“There is already little time, the harvesting itself takes two weeks. And, over that, the farmer also has to deal with packaging, transporting and selling in the mandi,” Punjab-based agriculture expert Devendra Sharma told ThePrint. 

“To sow the next crop, there is some level of moisture that is required, so farmers have the tendency to sow it as early as possible — usually by the second week of November. Delayed rains and procurement means the already short window gets shorter,” he added.


After crops are harvested, there is some leftover material, with paddy and other cereal crops accounting for up to 70 per cent of the residue in India.

Crop residue is mostly used as bedding material for animals, livestock feed, soil mulching, biogas generation, bio-manure/compost, biomass energy production, fuel for domestic and industrial use, etc, but much of it is burnt because its removal is considered an expensive process. 

Additionally, burning is also seen as a solution to the challenge posed by pests and fungi. 

The smoke from these crop fires, coupled with general air pollution from emissions, biomass burning, and indoor fuels, does not disperse immediately owing to India’s geography and direction of winds. 

Winds from the Bay of Bengal blow northwards, carrying smoke from the rest of the country towards the Himalayas, before hitting a block there. This deposits particulate matter, including smoke and dust along the northern belt of states adjoining the mountain range, with no room for dispersal away from the region. 

The weather phenomenon known as winter inversion also comes into play here, impeding the dispersal of pollutants. 

As the smoke is filled with particulate matter from crop burning, it also tends to settle lower, affecting children’s health. 

The solution

Over the years, the governments of Punjab and Haryana have taken different steps to curb this practice. This includes incentives for industries to use the residue (by both states), and monetary sops for farmers (financial constraints have proved an impediment in Punjab), besides awareness campaigns. Furthermore, the central government has sought to subsidise machinery meant to tackle the stubble.

Sharma says economic incentives to manage stubble can work better than machines.

“Punjab produces 200 lakh tonnes of stubble annually, which is difficult to maintain for any government. However, if the government gives financial incentives to the farmers, they will opt for it since they are also the ones who suffer from the practice,” he said.

Suneel Pandey, Director, Environment & Waste Management at environment conservation think tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said the problem of stubble burning can also be attributed to a lack of coordination between the states who are suffering the most.

“Stubble burning impacts the air quality of various other states, which calls for inter-state coordination to control the situation, which is largely lacking. The governments of the impacted states should sit together and coordinate in a better manner long before the season starts,” he added.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Delhi records worst air quality in five years a day after Diwali


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