The farms are burning

Stubble burning isn’t a Delhi problem—farmers face everything from respiratory disease to soil degradation, and there’s no easy way out

The fire crackles and hisses through the dry straw. Its flames, furious red ribbons of light, want to leap and fly. They do just for a moment, before the farmer takes cover, and spreads the straw to bring down the 4-feet-high flames to a more manageable level. The fire loses height but gains speed. It runs through the 3-acre farm inside 20 minutes and clears the soil of anything living. As it calms down, it leaves a layer of ash in its wake that covers the earth. Millions of tiny particles cling on to the farmer’s clothes.

The fire also sends plumes of grey-black smoke in the sky that hang low in the air. With more such fires around the area, this cloud of smoke will slowly get thicker and gather momentum. It will travel with the westerly wind and, in a matter of days, envelope the northern plains of India and choke cities, most notably Delhi.

The Delhi government blames these farm fires as the major reason behind the national capital’s poor air quality. The neighbouring states have taken cognizance and applied the carrot and stick approach. They have announced subsidies and schemes, asked the farmers not to burn the crop residue, and booked and fined those who still won’t listen.

The problem, though, is far more complex than meets the eye—forget Delhi, it’s the farmers themselves who bear the brunt of the burning. If you dig deeper, you’ll find layer after layer: broken promises, corruption, helplessness, mounting debts, farmer deaths and apathy on the part of the state. Put together, it’s a problem that cannot be solved by simply banning stubble burning.

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An earlier version of the story erroneously mentioned that 1 quintal equals 100 tonnes.

Photographs by Pradip K. Saha.


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