Battle for Breath

Clearing the air between India and Pakistan

A farmer in Indian Punjab watches as the stubble on his field burns. The Punjab government pays farmers a small amount to hire labourers to clear stubble instead of burning it, but this amount is often too little.
Neha Thirani Bagri
A farmer in Indian Punjab watches as the stubble on his field burns. The Punjab government pays farmers a small amount to hire labourers to clear stubble instead of burning it, but this amount is often too little.
Neha Thirani Bagri

IN EARLY NOVEMBER 2020, ten kilometres from the border with Pakistan, Shinda Singh stood at the edge of his field in Bhura Kohna village, in Indian Punjab, watching it spew columns of black smoke into an already hazy sky. The previous day, he had finished harvesting his rice crop, leaving behind clumps of straw-like stubble a foot high. That morning, he had poured kerosene across his land and set fire to it. Within an hour, most of the stubble had caught fire, turning it from yellow to a deep, charred black.

His eyes stung in the smog, but he felt no remorse. After all, what choice did he have?

Across the border, in the village of Sirhali Kalan, the fires abated days ago. In Pakistani Punjab, the agricultural cycle is roughly two weeks ahead of the one on the Indian side. But even when you can see evidence of the burning of crop residue—that tell-tale blistered stubble—no one will admit to it. Only “outsiders” burn their fields, the villagers insisted. Last year, the mosque broadcast reminders from the pulpit: crop burning is banned under provincial law, with penalties of up to 50,000 Pakistani rupees and possible imprisonment. In Indian Punjab, in 2019, officials tried a different tack: they offered compensation to farmers who did not burn crop residue, about ₹2,500 per acre for expenses incurred in manually clearing the land. And yet, by 15 November, the state had recorded 74,000 incidents of stubble burning for the season—the highest number in four years.

Shinda Singh, aged 50, was one of the farmers who abstained from stubble-burning last year. Instead, he hired labourers to clear his land, spending ₹4,000 on the exercise. “We thought that the government would pay us to remove the stubble but we didn’t get any money from them,” he said. “That is why this year I decided to burn it.”

In recent years, the field on fire—an intuitively horrifying image—has become the face of air pollution in the subcontinent, and Punjab, on either side of the India-Pakistan border. An easy scapegoat. Most experts will tell you, however, that it is not the main cause of the problem. Farmers on both sides of the border say this too, a knowledge borne from instinct. Crop burning, after all, is not a new phenomenon; at the very least, it predates the occurrence of smog in Punjab: a portmanteau of smoke and fog, increasingly described as “a fifth season” in the region.

Alizeh Kohari is a Karachi-based journalist. Her piece was facilitated in part by the Coalition for Women in Journalism.

Neha Thirani Bagri is an independent journalist based in Mumbai who writes about the intersections of gender, politics, development and climate change.

Keywords: Air pollution Pakistan Punjab crop burning
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