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Haryana farmers sorry for poor Delhi air, but say stubble burning is a compulsion

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Since Haryana farmers know they are being watched by authorities, many have begun to burn paddy straw at night.

Karnal: Farmers in Karnal, Haryana, are aware that smoke from the crop stubble they burn pumps catastrophic pollutants into Delhi, where they combine with heavy vehicular fumes and pollution from construction and other activities to trigger choking smog.

But as they set fire to their paddy stubble this year — furtively, at night, in light of a National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban — they also pleaded helplessness.

According to them, they burn crop stubble for the same reason an MNC employee pulls off all-nighters. They are on a deadline and the work needs to be done before they can move on to the next project.

The paddy harvest season is followed closely by the time to sow wheat — and any delay can jeopardise fragile cultivation calculations, they say, destroying their next harvest.

When ThePrint visited Karnal, roughly 120 km from Delhi, for a ground inspection, it found farmers aware of the ban and the fine, but resistant all the same.

Bittu, who owns a local shop on the Karnal-Meerut road, told ThePrint that the farmers “know they are being watched”.

“The stubble is still being burnt,” he said. “They (farmers) are just doing it after 8 pm, when it’s dark, and covering up the residue before morning.”

He added that farmers were also taking care to not burn the stubble on fields near the main road or the highway.

Also read: Good news for Delhi? Sharp reduction in stubble burning incidents in Punjab & Haryana

In the heart of Karnal

Going deep into the fields of old Karnal (neher-paar, across the canal) near the Karnal-Meerut road, this reporter found many sections of fields scarred with the black residue of burnt stubble. Some farmers, in open defiance, were seen burning crop stubble even during the day.

“We are burning the scraps from paddy that the tractor (combine harvester) left behind,” said a labourer who was setting fire to stubble and did not wish to be named.

Combine harvesters are machines that reap, thresh and clean cereal crops like rice and wheat in one go. They have been hailed by many as the answer to stubble burning, and are increasingly being used, but farmers complain the harvester leaves behind residual stubble. Some farmers sell it to gaushalas nearby as cattle feed, but the longer straws can’t be used for this purpose, they say.

When ThePrint asked a farmer why he stuck to stubble burning despite the awareness programmes of the government and other alternatives, he said it was “the quickest way to get rid of the long straws that can’t be used as cattle feed”.

“If they are allowed to remain on the field for a long time, the land gets infested with weeds and pests,” they added.

There is also the fact that burning crop residue is the cheapest way to clear off the land. Some local farmers appeared hesitant to buy new machinery, even though they agreed that mechanisation had greatly eased other agricultural tasks. 

Most farmers, however, said they were in a hurry to burn it up so that the land is cleared up in time for the wheat sowing season, which begins in October.

Pradeep Singh, a farmer who owns five acres of land, pointed at the stubble lying in his paddy field and said: “Look at this. What are we going to do with it?

“You people say it is banned and we are risking a penalty, but who is going to take this from here? I need to prepare my land for the new sowing cycle,” he said.

Next to his field, another farmer, Ashok Rana, was directing a labourer to level the soil on his two-acre land. When ThePrint asked him if he burnt stubble this season, he said no, but admitted to it when asked about the black burn patches.

“No one is going to accept it, but we do it. What is the alternative?” he said.

“We know the smoke travels to your city (Delhi), but the government should think about us as well,” said another farmer at a local shop on the Karnal-Meerut road. “Are they going to compensate us if the next cycle of harvest goes bad because we couldn’t prepare the soil in time?”

According to Haryana deputy director of agriculture Aditya Dabas, of the 93 instances of stubble burning across Haryana, 71 cases (as on 4 October) had been reported in Karnal since 1 September against 200 cases last year. Fifteen FIRs have been registered against defaulting farmers, who have been fined a total of Rs 2 Lakh.

The state government has also deployed the Haryana Space Application Centre to detect stubble burning through satellite mapping, which may call the bluff on farmers going through with it at night.

Also read: Punjab offers million-dollar reward to anyone who can solve stubble-burning problem

Situation on the ground

Karnal grows two main crops through the year — rice and wheat. Rice/paddy, grown on nearly 13.5 Lakh acres in Haryana, is sown in April and harvested in October.

After this the paddy stubble is usually disposed of by burning it, before preparing the land for sowing wheat.

However, stubble burning is said to be one of the big reasons for the smog that has been enveloping north India, particularly Delhi-NCR, in autumn and winter over the past few years. The air quality in Delhi reached an ‘unhealthy’ level Friday, as the peak stubble burning season began.

On 5 November 2015, the NGT had directed Delhi and four north Indian states — Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — to stop the age-old practice of stubble burning, imposing a fine of Rs 2,500 to Rs 15,000 on farmers who continued the practice.

The district magistrates of the states were also directed to form a committee to carry out awareness programmes for farmers and educate them about the ill-effects of straw burning on the environment.

The alternative

In some districts of Haryana, paddy straw is being collected by villagers and NGOs, to be used as cattle feed in gaushalas.

But according to the farmers of Karnal, no such initiative is being taken here. For most farmers, taking the straw to gaushalas serves as a deterrent.

“No one is here to collect this heap, or we would have done the same,” said Singh.

The Haryana government has also set up around 857 custom hiring centres (CSCs) in various districts, including Karnal, for agricultural implements to ensure proper management of crop residues, at 50-80 per cent subsidised rates.

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