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.

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