When Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh flew over Punjab and Haryana last week, he admitted he saw agriculture fields emitting plumes of smoke at several places -- meaning that stubble-burning of the harvested paddy crop was taking place with impunity in both agrarian states despite official strictures.
Despite threats of action -- including registration of legal cases -- as well as incentives in the form of subsidies for machines and equipment and awareness campaigns, farmers in north India continue to go in for the "quicker" option of getting rid of the crop residue to get their fields ready for the next crop.
The residue burning chokes the whole of north India during the winter months (November to January) with heavy smog (smoke+fog) over the region. National capital Delhi and nearby areas are the worst affected by the smog.
"We have westerly winds in this part (of the region) coming from Afghanistan and blowing towards Punjab and Delhi. That is why this (smog) problem arises in Delhi," Amarinder Singh said.
Paddy is grown over 65 lakh acres in Punjab. After harvesting, over 20 million tonnes of paddy, straw is left in the fields to be managed by farmers before sowing the next rabi crops (wheat and others). It is estimated that 15 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt by farmers for early and easy clearance of the fields.
Punjab alone contributes 65 per cent of the total residue produced by the northwestern states.
The claims of the Punjab and Haryana governments notwithstanding, stubble-burning continues to be a ground reality as farmers say that they don't have alternative ways of getting rid of the crop residue.
In "Green Revolution" state of Punjab, which is targetting a bumper paddy procurement of 200 lakh tonnes this season (October 1 to November 30), there are over 17.5 lakh farming families. Over 10 lakh (one million) of them have land holdings of two to five acres and cannot afford to go in for mechanised farming. With the paddy harvesting season starting and the fear of environment pollution looming large due to stubble-burning by farmers, the Punjab government has decided to appoint nodal officers in 8,000 paddy growing villages in a move to check the menace.
The nodal officers will undertake various activities, ranging from holding meetings with the farmers, arranging Crop Residue Management (CRM) machines and distribution of awareness material in villages, besides making announcements in gurdwaras or by other modes.
The villages have been identified by the Punjab Agriculture Department as those where paddy stubble is traditionally being burnt, an official said here.
"The Punjab government is committed to achieve zero paddy straw burning in the state. It has been decided that senior administrative secretaries of Punjab shall be allotted districts for monitoring of the activities related to stopping of crop residue burning," the official said.
The Punjab Pollution Control Board has been asked to ensure that all the incidents of paddy residue burning are properly recorded through satellite imagery and the report of burning incidents are shared with the concerned administrative secretaries, deputy commissioners and other related officers for action on the ground.
"All Deputy Commissioners have already been asked to depute officials for each of the affected villages to spread awareness on the dangers of stubble-burning for health and environment," Additional Chief Secretary (Development) Viswajeet Khanna said.
"As many as 24,315 subidised agro-machines and other equipment are being supplied to the farmers, Cooperative Societies and Custom Hiring Centres to achieve zero burning of paddy straw," a Punjab government spokesperson said.
Amarinder Singh had recently written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking Rs 100 per quintal as compensation only for those farmers who abstain from burning paddy residue under the state government's ambitious programme for management of paddy straw.
"The compensation should be given only to those farmers who refrain from burning paddy residue," Amarinder said in the communication.
The use of new machines for managing crop residue puts an additional burden of Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per acre on the farmers, which they are unable to afford.
Youth clubs in Punjab's villages have been asked to chip in to spread awareness among farmers against burning of paddy residue. Farmers who have not burnt the paddy in the last few years are being urged to interact with their peers.
In neighbouring Haryana, where paddy procurement is around 60 lakh tonnes, the state government has earmarked Rs 137.84 crore for crop residue management during the current financial year, Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Minister O.P. Dhankar said.
Dhankar said that 900 Custom Hiring Centres were being established at a distance of every 50 km in the state to collect crop residue at one place.
After a Supreme Court ruling last year, the central government sanctioned Rs 665 crore for 2018-20 to generate awareness and boost the use of subsidised machinery for processing the crop residue instead of burning it in Punjab. Of this, Rs 269 crore is being spent this year, while Rs 396 crore will be spent in 2019.
However, stubble-burning is on the rise in both states despite scores of farmers being booked by the authorities.