We Didn’t Start The Fire

Why Delhi will choke until it understands why Punjab is on the slow burn

11 November 2018
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Walk through the shorn rice fields of Faridkot district, in Punjab, and all that remains is a cloud of smoke and a ring of fire. Punjab’s fields of gold are ablaze again and the fire starter has disappeared. You could look at satellite images, read numbers off an air-quality app or take a whiff of Delhi’s air. On 30 October, just as the World Health Organisation concluded that “air pollution is the new tobacco,” Delhi’s air quality rapidly declined to a category officials describe as “severe”, for the first time this season. It has since hit the “severe plus emergency” category. But the truth of who is to blame for another season of crop-burning and spiking particulate matter numbers across north India is not easy to determine. With the growing chorus against crop-burning, farmers—who have put rice, wheat and pulses on the plates of Delhi’s denizens for decades—are sick of taking the blame.

The farming practices encouraged in the 1970s, during the Green Revolution, are one major facet of the annual crop-burning that adds to the pollution build-up in north India between mid-October to mid-November—the time period for harvesting the summer crop and sowing the winter crop. “When the Green Revolution began, the government was sending in their people saying you must use this fertiliser … because there’s a higher yield, you get farmers addicted to a certain way of being,” Bohar Singh Dhaliwal, the district president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union—a local farmers’ union in Punjab’s Sidhupur village—said. “Then 30 years later, you expect them to change?” Farmers such as Shivinder Singh Brar, a former government school teacher and general secretary of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, said that the Green Revolution made them dependant on the crop-burning routine. “It’s still the same crops, same seeds, so why would the burning stop?”

Farmers claimed that there are multiple preventive measures that can bring down crop-burning and the scary statistics, but blamed the government for patchy implementation. Crop diversification, which would break this harvest-sowing cycle, has failed in the region as the state provides Minimum Support Prices for rice and wheat only. Similarly, attempts to bring in early-maturing and equally high-yielding rice varieties, which would spread out the harvest-sowing time period and prevent farmers from resorting to crop burning, were executed in a piecemeal manner to have any discernible impact.

The Green Revolution has also drained the water table, prompting the state to delay sowing the summer crop. “If you sow late, you’ll harvest late. Then you don’t have the time to do the things besides harvest,” Dhaliwal said. This directly contributes to the crop-burning practice as the harvesting leaves root and chopped-up stalk everywhere; this must then be ploughed back into the land, levelled, watered and dried. “If you only have 15 days to do this, it is easier and cheaper to burn,” he explained. Access to machinery could speed this up and the central government announced subsidies for buying and hiring farm implements in May 2018. However, several farmers in Faridkot claimed each time a subsidy is announced, it is met with a hike in the price of implements and the machinery available is severely inadequate to clear stubble in a 15-day window. Moreover, large farmers, who avail subsidies, have been found to be selling equipment.

Biogas plants, which convert biomass, or crop residue, to energy, could turn things around in Punjab. There has been a policy-wise move towards an increased number of bio-gas plants. However, the policy seems to have been dreamt up in isolation, with the state power board terminating power purchase agreements with biogas plants, saying it has a power surplus, is weighed down by a power subsidy to farmers and cannot afford to buy biogas power at current tariffs.

“We’re happy to stop burning, farmers are stubborn but not stupid,” Parnam Singh, another Bharatiya Kisan Union member, said. “If it gets smoky there, it also gets smoky here, but where is the support?” The unions have even suggested that while the government gets its act in order, farmers are ready to reduce the burning to 25 percent. “To say don’t burn at all is way too much,” Singh said. “We pollute only once a year, but people in Delhi, industries pollute all the time.”

Ishan Tankha is a Delhi-based independent photographer whose work has been featured in a number of publications including Le Monde and The Guardian. He was a staff photographer at India Today and Open magazine, and photo editor at Tehelka. His work is available on Instagram @ishantankha.

Keywords: farming agriculture Air pollution pollution crop burning Green Revolution delhi air pollution delhi air pollution level
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