Published: 15:30, November 7, 2023 | Updated: 15:45, November 7, 2023
Indian farmers carry on burning stubble despite cost to health
By Reuters

A farmer burns straw stubble after a harvest in a paddy field on the outskirts of Amritsar on Oct 14, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

SAMALKHA -- Small farmer Aashish Sharma has been burning crop stubble in recent days even though he is aware of its impact on air quality nearby and in New Delhi, the world's most polluted capital located about three hours away by road.

The air quality in Sharma's village in Haryana state is so bad his asthmatic uncle struggles to breathe, meaning he needs a nebulizer to pump medicine directly into his lungs.

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"We know stubble-burning is harmful, particularly for the health of our parents and children," said Sharma, 22, in his village in Karnal, known for its rice and wheat cultivation.

But for him, the only alternative to burning crop residues is to join the queue to hire machines to clear his field, which would cost him about $100 for his four-acre farm

But for him, the only alternative to burning crop residues is to join the queue to hire machines to clear his field, which would cost him about $100 for his four-acre farm.

The average waiting time to rent a machine is about two weeks. Buying one for nearly 300,000 rupees ($3,606) is unaffordable for the small farmers in the village, they said, highlighting the challenge authorities face in trying to improve northern India's air every winter.

More than 85 percent of Indian farmers are categorized as small, meaning that, like Sharma, they own about four acres or fewer. Together, they control 47 percent of the country's crop area, government figures show.

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Residents in Delhi and surrounding areas in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab states experienced some of the filthiest air in the world in the last week, data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) showed.

A farmer burns straw stubble in a paddy field on the outskirts of Amritsar Sept 29, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

Delhi has closed primary schools and restricted road traffic, while international cricketers in the city skipped practice ahead of a World Cup match on Monday.

Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana has typically accounted for 30 percent to 40 percent of Delhi's October-November pollution, according to government air-quality monitoring agency SAFAR.

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In response to government incentives and fines, the number of fires has declined by 40 percent-50 percent this year from a year ago, the government estimates, but nearly a dozen farmers across three Karnal villages told Reuters they would keep burning.

Some Haryana residents said authorities hesitated to take tough action against farmers, who represent a sizeable share of the vote, ahead of a general election due early next year

"No one in our village has been fined so far though scores have burnt stubble," said Dharamvir Singh, adding he had cleared out 10 acres that way and would do the same for another 10-15 acres of own and leased land.

"I am coughing every day and feel irritation in my eyes but would prefer to take some medicine or a drink in the evening than incur extra costs."

Political will lacking

Ajay Singh Rana, a Haryana farm official, said the number of farms burning stubble in Karnal had dropped to 96 so far this year from 270 last year. He said fines had been imposed in 73 cases.

While the burning continues, Sharma's uncle, Mukhi Ram Sharma, said he was largely staying home.

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"I have been feeling breathless and very uncomfortable for the past month," the 75-year-old said.

People wearing face masks walk along the Kartavya Path amid heavy smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Nov 5, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

During the weekend, Reuters saw at least ten farm fires in Samalkha, Barota, and Budhanpur villages in Karnal district late in the evening when the risk of detection is considered to be less. The district's air quality index (AQI) has read "very poor" at over 300 for the last few days, CPCB data shows.

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The figure has remained well above 400 in Delhi, with low wind speeds also helping to trap other emissions from traffic and industry.

Some Haryana residents said authorities hesitated to take tough action against farmers, who represent a sizeable share of the vote, ahead of a general election due early next year.

"No one has the political will to stop this nuisance," said Bajinder Pal Punia, 54, adding the pollution had disrupted outdoor wrestling practice for two of his daughters.