According to the environment ministry, fire-related incidents are 75% and 40% lower in Punjab and Haryana, respectively, so far but that may not be a reason to cheer. The paddy grown in summer in Punjab was sown late this year by a week, while both Punjab and Haryana witnessed unseasonal rains in end-September, which has delayed harvesting by about 10 days because of a rise in crop moisture levels. Air quality is likely to worsen as more farmers begin harvesting.
The situation is however likely to be better than last year when a dust storm, stubble burning and Diwali celebrations took place around 19 October. This year, Diwali falls on 7 November.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) for Delhi was recorded at 246 (poor) on Monday at 4 pm, on the basis of data collected from 31 monitoring stations. An AQI between 0-50 is considered ‘good’, 51-100 ‘satisfactory’, 101-200 ‘moderate’, 201-300 ‘poor’, 301-400 ‘very poor’, and 401-500 ‘severe’. According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), air quality is set to worsen, as levels of two main pollutants, PM 2.5 and PM 10, is likely to increase in the next three days.
“We can plan better if we have advance information on air quality. Last year, we were caught surprised when a dust storm from Gulf countries led to spike in pollution levels. This year, at least we would be able to forewarn people and take proactive measures," environment minister Harsh Vardhan said on Monday at the launch of an early warning system that can issue air quality forecast three days in advance.
“It is difficult to predict how bad it is going to be," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “Right now, from the satellite images we can see some (stubble) burning but end October will be the real test of government measures," she said.
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana usually burn the paddy straw after combine harvesters leave a 7-8 inch stubble on the field following harvest, and farmers have to prepare the field for planting of wheat crop in two to three weeks. As the straw cannot be fed to cattle, the way out is on-field management of stubble by using machines such as straw management system, mulchers, rotavators and happy seeders.
The central and state governments have announced 50-80% subsidy on purchase of these machineries but have seen limited success. “The machinery is very expensive despite the subsidy and manufacturers raised prices after these subsidies were announced," said Jagmohan Singh, a farmer leader.
“The number of machines that has been purchased on subsidy will not even cover 10% of Punjab’s paddy area... besides it costs farmers over ₹ 5,000 per acre for straw management by rented machines," Singh said.
Farmer in these states are demanding a direct financial assistance of ₹ 200 per quintal of paddy harvested to account for straw management expenses. According to the agriculture ministry, 23 mt of paddy straw is burnt in Punjab, Haryana and UP every year, shooting up carbon dioxide levels in the air by 70%, triggering respiratory problems.