Harpal Singh struck a match and watched his fields burn, the acrid smoke drifting toward New Delhi where a lethal smog cocktail is once again intensifying over the world’s most polluted megacity.
Every November, air pollution in northern India reaches levels unimaginable in most parts of the world, forcing schools shut and filling hospital wards with wheezing patients.
As winter descends, cooler air traps car fumes, factory emissions and construction dust close to the ground, fomenting a toxic brew of harmful pollutants that regularly exceed 30 times the World Health Organization safe limit.
The scourge is compounded as farmers like Singh use fire to cheaply clear their land.
He knows slash-and-burn farming is illegal.
But local authorities appear powerless to stop it.
“We have no other choice but to burn the straw,” Singh said in Ishargarh, a village in Haryana state, about 120 km northwest of Delhi.
“We know the smoke pollutes the air. But it is the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of the (crop) residue,” he said.
This smoke is already reaching Delhi.
Deterrents, such as fines of up to $200 for farmers flouting the law, appear to have limited effect.
Satellite imagery shows countless spot fires already burning in Haryana and Punjab, two breadbasket states bordering Delhi.
S Narayanan, from Haryana’s State Pollution Control Board, said 300,000 rupees in fines had been issued and fires were down 40 per cent in some areas.
“But our intention is not only to take punitive action, but to educate the farmers,” he said.
Farmers represent powerful voting blocs in rural states like Haryana and Punjab, and local authorities are reluctant to upset them.
Many have balked at suggestions of buying “Happy Seeders” — expensive machines which according to media reports cost at least 150,000 rupees — that sow wheat without needing to dispose of the leftover straw.
The government is offering a subsidy of 50 per cent to individuals and 80 per cent to groups of farmers to encourage them to use the machines.
“We are already in debt… and we can’t afford even the subsidised machines,” said Karnail Singh, a 60-year-old farmer.
Television ads, social media campaigns and meetings at the village level have also had limited success.
Powerful farmers unions say many of the government’s ideas overlook extra costs imposed on poor rural families. — AFP