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Crop burning: Will it continue?

Burning of crops in southeast Punjab – a major driver of northern India’s pollution crisis. (Image credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (])
The practice of crop burning is among the drivers of the pollution crisis which has enveloped the National Capital Region (NCR) in India. However, even as the Supreme Court has taken a stringent line against it, will it continue? 

The practice of burning crop residue leads to between seven and eight million metric tonnes of stubble being incinerated by farmers yearly. This heralds pollution season in north India – one which has been of such intensity this year that it resulted in a public health emergency being declared in Delhi by the Environment (Pollution Control and Pollution) Authority (EPCA) and wound up being in the crosshairs of the Supreme Court. 

As Air Quality Index (AQI) readings for the national capital stood at their worst in almost three years, justices fumed. “Delhi is choking every year and we are not able to do anything,” the bench condemned. “People are dying and it can’t happen in a civilised country.”

In 2017, air pollution was responsible for 1.2 million deaths in India. It slashes life expectancy, can lead to or exacerbate numerous health issues, and is profoundly damaging to child health. Far from being limited to the NCR, pollution is a pan-Indian issue. Even as AQI readings have improved in the national capital, downgraded from “severe” to “poor” on the scale, the pollution crisis continues to take a toll.

“I have patients from all age groups, and most of them are nonsmokers who complain of breathlessness, chest congestion, fatigue and weakness,” commented Dr Salil Sharma. “In some cases, I had to put some patients on a ventilator because they couldn’t breathe. We are right in the middle of a health emergency.”

“The Supreme Court has taken state governments to task over [crop burning]. “It is high time for officials from top to bottom to be made responsible for it,” said the bench.

Last year, Delhi was not even the most polluted city in India. In last year’s pollution season, this sobriquet fell to Bihar state capital Patna. Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur and Varanasi ranked second and third respectively. Delhi placed fourth. India is home to seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities. This is not to say that air pollution should be perceived as a problem affecting solely urban India. Rural India accounts for 75 percent of the country’s pollution-related deaths.

While Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has blamed crop burning as being chiefly to blame for the national capital’s pollution woes, the practice is not the sole source of air pollution in the NCR. Nonetheless, crop burning is a significant factor with particulate matter emissions due to crop burning seventeen times higher than those of any other source. 

Last week, the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting (SAFAR) blamed crop burning for 46 percent of the national capital’s pollution. The Supreme Court has taken state governments to task over the issue, directing Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh to ensure cessation of the practice or else be held in contempt. “It is high time for officials from top to bottom to be made responsible for it,” said the bench, which consisted of justices Deepak Gupta and Arun Misha. 

Despite the condemnation of the Supreme Court, and the dispatch of 300 teams to enforce pollution norms including against crop fires, the practice is likely to continue. Burning of crop residue is practised as it is considered cheaper than hiring employees and purchasing machinery to dispose of stubble properly. As such, so far this year, 31,267 crop burning fires have been recorded in Punjab – including 5,953 on Monday alone. In Haryana, authorities have reported 4,288 such fires. Counteracting the issue requires a concerted effort by officials – which the Supreme Court has exhorted.

“We direct state governments, chief secretaries, district collectors and entire police machinery to ensure that not a single incident of stubble burning takes place,” the bench said. “If it happens, the person concerned along with the entire administration from chief secretary to gram pradhan would be held responsible.”

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