6 districts fail zero farm fire goal, but rest of Punjab likely to meet 50% dip target

What Punjab does to reduce its farm fires also improves air quality in AAP-governed Delhi to some extent.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Smoke billows from a farm fire in Punjab.

Before the paddy harvest season began, the Punjab government led by the Aam Aadmi Party had set a few targets. One of them was to keep the fire count to zero in six of the state’s 23 districts. But despite improvements, that goal remains elusive.

What Punjab does to reduce its farm fires also improves air quality in AAP-governed Delhi to some extent – the contribution of farm fires to the city’s air quality ranged from 0 to 38 percent on different days last year in October and November. Though the extent to which farm fires have contributed to PM 2.5, the most harmful air pollutant, this time in Delhi is not clear, the national capital’s air quality has already plunged into the ‘very poor’ zone with local emissions among other reasons.   

Meanwhile, the six districts part of the Punjab government’s plan – which was earlier submitted to the Commission for Air Quality Management – included Hoshiarpur, Malerkotla, Pathankot, Rupnagar, SAS Nagar and SBS Nagar. These districts were chosen as they reported the lowest number of farm fires; the highest are usually recorded in Patiala, Sangrur and Amritsar.

Instances of setting paddy residue afire by farmers intensify in late October and early November as the harvest season nears its end. 

The progress

In the 2022 harvest season, counted from September 15 to November 30, the fire count in five of these districts, excluding Malerkotla, was 879 or 1.76 percent of the total 49,922 across Punjab. Each of the five registered fewer than 300 fire counts: 270 in SBS Nagar, 259 in Hoshiarpur, 246 in Rupnagar, 103 in SAS Nagar and one in Pathankot. 

The daily bulletin of fire counts, issued by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, does not maintain a separate record for Malerkotla, the state’s newest district carved out of Sangrur. It is instead merged with Sangrur district, which is a fire hotspot and reported 5,916 fire incidents this period from September 15 to November 30.

However, a year-on-year comparison from September 15 to October 29 shows that the five districts have reported 126 fire counts against 373 last year – a drop of 66 percent. But this is still behind target.

Two districts haven’t made any progress at all, including SAS Nagar, which reported four more fire counts than the 78 during the same period last year, and Pathankot which saw one fire as compared to the zero last year. Hoshiarpur was the best performer, bringing down the tally to just 10 from 142. It was followed by Rupnagar’s 13 against 117 and SBS Nagar’s 25 against 40 that were recorded during the same period last year.

As part of its plan to support farmers to tackle the issue of farm residue, the state government, over the past few years, has been procuring more machinery for farmers and agricultural outfits, and offering them with a subsidy of anywhere between 50 and 80 percent. Industries, meanwhile, have been directed to use paddy straw as fuel. 

The state government has taken these steps as part of the centrally-sponsored crop residue management scheme, which is implemented by the Punjab government with 60 percent of the total funds shared by the Centre. The Centre, in this financial year, has allocated Rs 240 crore while the state's share is Rs 140 crore.

The drop in hotspots

Another target that Punjab wants to achieve is a 50 percent reduction in the rest of the districts. So far, the state seems to be on the way to overshoot its goal. 

The satellite data maintained by the IARI CREAMS laboratory shows that the state has this year, from September 15 to October 29, registered 5,254 fire counts against 12,112 in the same period last year – a drop of 56 percent. Hotspot districts such as Tarn Taran, Sangrur and Patiala have brought down the fire count to a considerable level.

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It’s not clear to what extent these farm fires have contributed to Delhi’s PM 2.5, the most harmful air pollutant, this time. The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), a government body under the ministry of earth sciences, stopped sharing the data after October 13 when the share of farm fires in Delhi’s PM 2.5 was just 3 percent.

It’s not only farm fires that are to be blamed for Delhi choking air. Adverse meteorological conditions are a big factor too. 

Northwesterly winds bring smoke from neighbouring states to Delhi where all pollutants are trapped due to slow wind speed. Local sources such as vehicles, dust, construction, industries, waste burning etc. contribute more to air pollution than farm fires.    

Previous targets

Punjab produces 19.55 million tonnes of paddy straw, of which 3.30 MT is from basmati varieties. Basmati residue is mostly used as fodder for cattle. The remaining 16.25 MT is from non-basmati varieties. 

Due to high silica content in non-basmati varieties, cattle don’t eat it. So the government has over the years tried various methods to prevent burning of non-basmati residue. They are divided into three categories: ex-situ (off site), in-situ (on field) and crop diversification.

Under ex-situ management, farm residue is transported to industries to be used as their fuel. In-situ management involves mixing paddy residue with soil while sowing the next crop.

This financial year, the state is expected to manage 17.46 million tonnes of paddy residue under the three categories. Interestingly, this includes 3.3 MT of basmati residue which is used by farmers to feed their cattle.

In the previous two financial years, the state had failed to achieve its target. 

In 2022-23, the state managed 14.79 MT of straw against a target of 15.52 MT. In 2021-22, it managed 12.05 MT against a target of 12.91 MT, including 2.57 MT of basmati varieties used as fodder.

What the government managed to achieve was largely through ex-situ and in-situ management as the crop diversification target – efforts to wean farmers away from paddy cultivation due to plummeting ground water table and stubble fire – had drawn a blank in the last two years.

There were two reasons for this, according to the state’s pollution control board, and these were “beyond the control of the state of Punjab” – the Ukraine war and an increasing minimum support price for paddy.

It said the crop diversification target could not be met due to the assured procurement of paddy by the state while other crops “are not equally remunerative” – the MSP of paddy has increased from Rs 1,868 in 2020-21 to Rs 2,040 this financial year.

“The reasons for non-achievement of targets under the crop diversification plan can be fairly attributed to the following factors… increased emphasis by the government of India on production of coarse cereals (wheat and rice) due to global issues like the Ukraine war; the MSP of paddy is steadily increasing since the last three years,” read the Punjab’s action plan prepared by its pollution control board. 

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