A week after Diwali, the smog over Delhi hadn’t lifted. The air was more toxic than any other city in the world. Wearing masks and holding up banners that said “We are not Hiroshima”, about 200 Delhi residents gathered at Jantar Mantar on November 6, demanding clean air.

Waking up abruptly to the problem, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal met the Union Environment Minister, Anil Dave, and urged the Centre to intervene. This wasn’t a problem that Delhi could fix, he argued. The pollution was coming from Punjab and Haryana where farmers were burning the stubble of the newly harvested paddy crop, sending fumes all the way to the national capital.

The next evening, while sipping tea at a roadside shop in Amritsar’s New Civil Colony, 70-year-old Harjit Singh, was irked when asked for his opinion on Delhi government’s claim. “Tell me one thing,” the retired civil aviation official said. “If crop burning was the main reason, there would be thick smog here too, right?”

The evening haze over Amritsar was nowhere as intense as Delhi.

“The winter wind is mild,” Singh said. “How would the smoke travel so far?”

A view of the inter-state bus terminus in Amritsar on the morning of November 8.

It isn’t the smoke that travels, but particulate matter, explained Polash Mukherjee, a research associate at the Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility Unit of the Centre for Science and Environment. While the worst impact of crop burning is felt by people living in the vicinity, fragments of particles go up in the atmosphere where they mix with moisture and travel with mild wind, slowly contributing to pollution in neighbouring places, especially those under an influence of low air pressure.

Between October 29 and November 7, Delhi experienced low pressure conditions because of an anti-cyclone effect. In a cyclone, wind flows outward from an epicentre. The anti-cyclone effect sucks in wind, and pollutants from all directions get trapped. That explains the intensity of the smog settled over the city, said Mukherjee.

But the particulate matter generated by crop burning in Punjab and Haryana was not the only source of the post-Diwali haze. “Most of Delhi’s pollution emanates from within the city,” said Sarath Guttikunda, one of the leading air quality researchers in India.

A study done by IIT Kanpur in 2015 estimated that the use of diesel and petrol, mostly in vehicles, contributed 29% of Delhi’s pollution. Another 26.1% of the pollution came from coal combustion, mostly in thermal power plants. Biomass burning, which includes smoke particles from crop fires, accounts for 19.6% of the pollution.

Another study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, however, reportedly found that 46% of Particulate Matter 2.5 in Delhi’s air comes from Pakistan, Punjab and Haryana, and 30% from UP, Bihar and Uttarakhand.

A haze-filled afternoon sky in Central Delhi on November 10.

Either way, pollution can be controlled only when all the sources of toxic particles are tackled, said researchers. For this, all the states in North India need to work together. Instead, state governments were blaming each other.

On Monday, the Environment Ministry called for a meeting of five states to discuss possible solutions to the pollution over North India. At the meeting, ministers from Punjab and Haryana dismissed Kejriwal’s allegations as “baseless”, and claimed their governments had been working hard on reducing the burning of crop stubble in their states.

What fuelled the blame game was party politics: Haryana is ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party, and Punjab by an alliance of Akali Dal and the BJP. Punjab has elections in a few months. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is hoping to wrest the state from the Akali-BJP combine.

This means, on the ground, farm fires are not on the agenda of any political party, not even AAP, regardless of the position taken by Kejriwal in Delhi. No one wants to alienate farmers.

Some farmers, though, are more enlightened than politicians and city residents. Travelling from Amritsar to Delhi, this reporter met several of them who explained the economics behind the burning of crop stubble. Some proposed solutions. Others have already adopted alternatives.

November 8: Amritsar to Ludhiana

A slow-burning fire inched its way across a field in Dhahan village in Punjab’s Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district. The paddy straw spread on the one-acre field had been set on fire around noon on November 8. By 3 pm, all that was left was a blanket of black embers, with smoke still billowing on the edges.

02.45 PM Nov 8: Paddy stub burnt in a field in Dhahan.

This is the time of the year when the rice has been harvested and the fields are being readied for the winter crop of wheat or vegetables, said Baljit Kang, a young farmer.

Not all farmers burnt the crop stubble, he said – particularly those who grow basmati rice avoid it. Even though the costs of employing labourers is 2-3 times that of using a machine called the combine, basmati farmers manually harvest the crop, to ensure the superior-quality long grain is not broken. Manual harvest leaves behind less straw, locally called parali, and whatever is left behind is churned in a machine and fed to cattle.

For the rest of the farmers, there are two options: either burn the straw or use it to make mulch, called geeli parali or khaad. Mulch is made by mixing decomposed parali with ash and cattle excreta. The mix is stored in hut-like structures for five days. What comes out is used as a protective layer for the top soil. It stops erosion, arrests weed growth, and maintains crop temperature by restricting water evaporation.

Parali spread for burning later in the day at a field in Jandiala on November 8.

Kang is a big advocate of mulch. A science graduate from a family of transporters, he started organic farming six years ago. He is among the small but growing number of farmers in the state who have eschewed chemical fertilisers and have gone back to enriching the soil through natural nutrients. He avoids crop burning, he said with a smile, both out of concern for the air and the usefulness of crop residue in making mulch.

But other farmers in the village are yet to adopt Kang’s practices. The reason is economics: making mulch is an expensive proposition.

After harvesting the crop, a farmer would have to deploy a machine called reaper at the cost of Rs 400 per acre to extract the crop residue, and then get a group of workers to gather and store the parali in mulching units. The labour cost comes to Rs 2,000 per acre for that, and another Rs 2,000 to spread the mulch on the field. Another alternative is using a machine called the rotavator, which extracts the stubs using powerful blades, and then simultaneously churns and mixes them into the soil, while tilling the fields. The rent of rotavator is Rs 1,300 per acre.

Why would a farmer spend this money when he can easily get rid of the residue by setting it on fire?

Organic farmer Baljit Kang stands near his field in Dhahan village on November 8.

Kang, however, claimed, that crop burning is more of “a psychological issue than an economic issue”. There is cut-throat competition among farmers who want to be the first in cultivating and reaping the crop, he said. “This makes the farmers resort to the quickest method of setting the crop residue on fire to clear the land.”

Not everyone agrees.

Earlier that morning, near Amritsar, in a village called Jandiala, Bhagwaan Singh, the President of the Punjab Nirman Majdoor Union in Jandiala, had drawn a link between the rapid spread of the burning of paddy straw in the state and the failing fortunes of the Punjab farmer.

The average revenue from one acre, he said, came to just Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000. For two cropping seasons, this amounted to about Rs 80,000 per acre. For farmers who did not own the land, the rent itself often shaved off half the revenue. All other expenses – on inputs, labour, machines – left little scope for adopting expensive alternatives to crop burning.

Burning the crop residue was the only option for such farmers struggling to make ends meet. Before the government imposes fines on burning paddy, it should provide free alternatives to them to dispose of their residue, Singh argued.

Bhagwaan Singh of Jandiala Guru.

Not that there is clear evidence of any fines imposed on farmers in Punjab. Singh could not cite any recent instance.

According to a report published by Mail Today, until October 21 this year, Punjab reported more than 1,800 farm fires to the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority, but it did not make available any data on the fines imposed on farmers.

Lalit Sharma, a member of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, however, claimed the fines had been imposed, but on small farmers and not large land-holders. This rendered the exercise ineffective, he said. “Penalising small-time farmers will show good numbers, and numbers are what they [state government officials] need to show to the NGT [National Green Tribunal].”

According to Kang, at present, the Punjab government gives a subsidy of 30% to farmers purchasing rotavators. Since a rotavator costs around Rs 1 lakh, only affluent farmers can afford to buy one. Usually, they rent it out to other farmers for about Rs 1,300 per acre.

“Instead of subsidising rich farmers, the government should distribute the subsidy amount among all farmers who can use it to pay the rent. At Rs 1,300 per acre, the subsidy of Rs 30,000 for one machine can support 23 acres,” he said.

Kang wants the government to step in and act as a middleman between those who own the assets (rotavators in this case) and the users. “This calls for efficient management skills and political will, not cheap politics,” he said.

The ruling party in Punjab has a reputation of partisanship, as Scroll.in has reported earlier. The fear is that even rotavators will be distributed in only the areas which the ruling coalition favours.

November 9: Ambala to Sonipat

“Sonipat too was hit by the smog last week. But does Haryana pollute Delhi air or is it the other way round?” asked Yashveer Arya, a farmer’s rights activist in Haryana, who pointed towards a distant haze in the direction of Delhi.

By November 9, as the anti-cyclone effect eased, the pollution levels in Delhi had gone from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’. The air quality in Haryana’s Sonipat district, 35 kms north of Delhi, had improved as well, Arya said.

Hardly any paddy residue had been burnt this year in Sonipat. Only one in ten farmers had resorted to it, he claimed.

Part of what held back farmers was a crackdown on farm fires by the state government. Haryana had reported 1,200 farm fires until October 21, and had collected Rs 8 lakh in fines.

But a bigger motivation was economic: Sonipat has become a leading cultivator of mushroom, and mulch works well for mushroom cultivation.

Workers preparing mulch at a field in Harsana Kalan village (Haryana) on November 9 evening.

Mushroom cultivation has spurred a local market in parali, or the crop residue, said farmers Raj Kumar and Parvinder Singh, while supervising the spread of the nutrient-rich layer on their adjoining fields in Harsana Kalan village.

Years ago, traders from Rajasthan used to come to the villages in Sonipat to purchase paddy straw, which they used as cattle fodder. Now, farmers have begun to sell and utilise it locally to produce mulch.

Kumar and Singh explained the economics. Harvesting one acre of land using a combine costs Rs 1,300. Manual harvest by workers costs Rs 4,000 per acre, or a difference of Rs 2,700. One acre of manually harvested land produces a trolley-full of parali – about 18-20 quintals, which sold at an average market rate of Rs 2,500 per trolley, recovers most of the difference.

Farmers Parvinder Singh (left) and Raj Kumar (right) at their field in Harsana Kalan.

Suresh Sharma owns a mulching unit in the village. It is a hut-like structure that stores over 100 quintals of mulch, which is called a ‘set’. This season, Sharma’s unit expects to sell at least 25 sets.

Sitting on a cot which he calls the office of his mulching unit, Sharma said that one set of mulch is made using parali from four acres of agriculture land. This means one mulching unit, producing 25 sets, can process the crop residue of 100 acres in a season. If the village has leftover crop residue, it can be sold off as cattle fodder at the local markets.

According to Arya, even the farmers in the area who cannot afford to manually harvest their crop, and use combines, have desisted from burning the stubs this year. Instead, they put water on the parali and used a disc-harrow machine to shred and mix the stubs with the soil, which they hope will enhance the soil quality. The cost of not setting crop ablaze is the rent of the disc harrow – just Rs 400 per acre.

“There are alternatives to crop burning, and farmers are willing to adopt them,” he said.

Water left in the fields to aid the decomposition of crop stubble in Harsana Kalan village.