Fields of fire drive Delhi’s air quality to unhealthy levels

Indian farmer watches as stubble burns. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 October 2019

Fields of fire drive Delhi’s air quality to unhealthy levels

  • Farmers burn crop straws and stubble during this time of year
  • Levels of tiny particulate matter that goes deep into the lungs rose to an “unhealthy” level

NEW DELHI: When it comes to air quality there are few worse places to live on the planet than New Delhi, and driving north out the Indian capital it is easy to see why, as plumes of smoke rise from the burning farmland lining the expressway.
Every year, at this time, farmers in states surrounding the sprawling mega-city are burning off the crop straw and stubble in preparation for the sowing season.
The smoke from fields combines with urban pollution from vehicles and industry to make New Delhi the world’s most-polluted capital.
“The situation is set to get worse this year,” Vimlendu Jha, an environmental expert on a government panel to clean up the capital, told Reuters, lamenting the dismal impact of a subsidy scheme to persuade farmers to switch to cleaner methods.
This week in Delhi, levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that goes deep into the lungs, rose to an “unhealthy” 200 micro-organism per cubic meter. That is double the acceptable level, and it is likely to get worse going into the winter, as cold air and a seasonal reduction in wind leaves pollutants hanging in the atmosphere for longer.
The government has allocated $160 million for a subsidy scheme offering to cover up to 80% of a mulching and seed drilling machine, called “happy seeder machines,” that farmers can mount on tractors to dispose of the paddy stalks and straw without burning them.
But, as often happens in India, good intentions, according to farmers, have been hampered, by poor implementation.
Reuters spoke to 50 farmers in Punjab and Haryana states, two of the states bordering Delhi, and found that only 20% of used the machines.
Bureaucrats believe the fault lies with the farmers, and subsidies alone are not the answer.
“It’s mindset, and behavior that needs to be changed,” said Ashwani Kumar, an official at the federal agriculture ministry.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), the main environmental court of India, has banned crop residue burning, but the ban is rarely enforced.
Delhi did have its best air quality in nine years in September, with PM 2.5 averaging 40, but the improvement was largely down to heavy rains and strong winds clearing the atmosphere, rather than people changing their ways.
Going up in smoke

Field burning is up by 45% in Punjab over the last 20 days compared with the same period last year. Haryana has registered a slight drop but officials expect the numbers to go up in the next 15-20 days.
In the Karnal district of Haryana, 117 km (73 miles) north of Delhi, a Reuters reporter saw farmers burning tracts of their land.
Farmer Ramesh Singh said he had thought about not torching his land this year because he didn’t want to break the law.
But in the end the effort to purchase machines that cost upwards of 350,000 Indian rupees ($4,915) and the paperwork required to claim the subsidy proved too much.
“Last year, I promised myself I wouldn’t set the rice paddy residue on fire to clear my field for planting winter crops,” said Singh. “But as the new sowing season drew closer, I started running out of time and I reluctantly set the farm waste on fire to prepare the field for wheat planting.”
After harvesting rice in late September, farmers have to plant wheat and rapeseed by mid- or late-October, as any delay will result in lower crop yields.
And they say the time between clearing the land and the sowing season is too short for them to be worrying about Delhi’s pollution.
The smoke from their fields accounts for nearly one-quarter of Delhi’s winter air pollution, and as it is a quicker fix than cleaning up industry or improving public transport to reduce the traffic in a city of 20 million people, authorities have prioritized stamping out the practice of burning crop stubble.
Tortuous process

Under the subsidy scheme, individual farmers can claim back 50% of the cost of “happy seeders” while a group of growers, or farmers’ cooperatives, are entitled to reclaim 80% of the cost.
The downside for farmers is that the need to pay upfront, and to claim the subsidies, they say they have to submit three sets of applications, six separate forms, receipts for buying the machines and clearances from half a dozen local government offices. And once all the papers are submitted, everything depends on how fast the bureaucrats process the claim.
“Other than the formalities that we have to complete, various government offices take their own sweet time to process our applications, resulting in considerable delays in receiving our reimbursements,” said farmer Sukrampal Dhayana.
And as the “happy seeder” machines are expensive, and are needed for only 15-20 days in a year, farmers admit they are reluctant to buy them, especially when they are earning meagre incomes from low crop prices.
“The economics didn’t work out,” said Sanjeev Kumar, a grower, sitting at the edge of a lush, green rice field.


Many feared dead after Florida beachfront condo collapses

Updated 2 min 13 sec ago

Many feared dead after Florida beachfront condo collapses

  • Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis said rescue crews are ‘doing everything they can to save lives — that is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest’

SURFSIDE, Florida: A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person and trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled out dozens of survivors and continued to look for more.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.
“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”
Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.
Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage, but it was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who toured the scene, said television did not capture the scale of what happened.
Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.
Authorities did not say what may have caused the collapse. On video footage captured from nearby, the center of the building appeared to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.
Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have been the cause.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she got a call from President Joe Biden, who offered federal aid. Hotels opened to some of the displaced residents, she said, and deliveries of food, medicine and more were being hastily arranged. Rescue officials tried to determine how many people might be missing and asked residents to check in with them.
About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.
Fifty-one people who were thought to be in the building at the time of the collapse were unaccounted for by mid-morning — but there was a possibility that some weren’t at home, said Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.
The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett said.
Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.
The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs inside. Air conditioners hung from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.
Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
He and his wife made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.
Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.
Surfside City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Miami television station WPLG that the building’s county-mandated 40-year recertification process was ongoing. Salzhauer said the process was believed to be proceeding without difficulty. A building inspector was on-site Wednesday.
“I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. ... And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”
At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor.
Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.
“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a tweet that more than 80 units were at the scene with help from municipal fire departments. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.
Nicolas Fernandez waited early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones,” she said.
The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000 in an area with a neighborhood feel that provides a stark contrast to the glitz and bustle of nearby South Beach.
The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The main oceanside drag is lined with glass-sided, luxury condominium buildings, but more modest houses are on the inland side. Among the neighborhood’s residents are snowbirds, Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jewish families.
Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law’s vacant condo on Wednesday but didn’t, only to awake to news of the collapse.
“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”


Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

Updated 24 June 2021

Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

  • The Taliban have held Kunduz twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan
  • Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet a September 11 deadline

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: Fear stalked Kunduz Thursday as residents prepared for a lengthy siege, with government forces patrolling the streets and Taliban insurgents surrounding the northern Afghan city.
The Taliban have held the city twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan.
“The Taliban have besieged our city,” said Qudratullah, a fruit seller who has done hardly any business since fighting first erupted in Kunduz province two weeks ago.
“Even today there is sporadic fighting on the outskirts of the city,” said Qudratullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
“If the government does not launch an operation against the Taliban, their siege will continue for a long time.”
Most businesses in Kunduz remained shut and vehicles stayed off the roads, an AFP correspondent who toured the city reported.
Dozens of military vehicles patrolled the streets as new government forces were deployed in the city of around 300,000, swelled by an influx of rural residents fleeing fighting in the districts.
Troops were seen firing sporadically at Taliban positions, and the bodies of two insurgents lay on the ground on the eastern edge of Kunduz.
The city’s public health director told AFP that since the fighting erupted a week ago, 21 civilians have been killed and 225 wounded.
Residents said they were suffering from water and power cuts, and few shops were open.
Kunduz resident Hasib said he feared the Taliban would soon launch a major offensive on the city.
“We don’t feel safe... We have seen the Taliban capture the city twice before, and we do not want the city to fall again to them,” he said.
“The government forces should break the Taliban siege, if not the Taliban will continue their offensives... and their siege will continue forever.”
Fighting has raged across Kunduz province for days, with the Taliban and Afghan forces engaged in bloody battles.
On Tuesday the insurgents captured Shir Khan Bandar, Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan, in one of their most significant gains in recent months.
On Thursday, Afghan authorities attempted to put on a brave front, with Interior Minister Abdul Satar Mirzakwal flying in for a brief visit.
“Saving and protecting Kunduz is among our top priorities,” he said in a video message released to reporters.
“We are taking serious measures and will provide more weapons and technical equipment to Afghan forces in all provinces.”
Since early May, the Taliban have launched several major offensives targeting government forces across the rugged countryside and say they have seized at least 87 of the country’s more than 400 districts.
Many of their claims are disputed by the government and difficult to independently verify.
Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet the September 11 deadline announced by President Joe Biden to end America’s longest war.


Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

Updated 24 June 2021

Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

  • Foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11
  • First troops would return to Poland on Thursday night

WARSAW: Poland will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan at the end of June, President Andrzej Duda said on Thursday, bringing its two-decade presence in the country to an end.
NATO allies agreed in April that foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with a US pull-out by Sept. 11.
“At the end of June, after 20 years, we are ending our military involvement in the largest NATO operation in history,” Duda wrote on Twitter, adding that the first troops would return to Poland on Thursday night.
After withdrawing, the United States and NATO aim to rely on Afghan military and police forces, which they have developed with billions of dollars in funding, to maintain security.


Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 24 June 2021

Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

  • About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Africa is not winning its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as a third virus wave sweeps the continent and countries struggle to access enough vaccines for their populations, Africa CDC director John Nkenkasong said on Thursday.
The COVAX program co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) for fair distribution of vaccines is now planning a shake-up as it has been shunned by rich countries and failing to meet the needs of the poorest, internal documents seen by Reuters show.
Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director Nkenkasong said he was more worried about getting vaccines in time regardless of where the doses came from.
“The third wave has come with severity that most countries were not prepared for. So the third wave is extremely brutal,” Nenkasong said during a weekly online briefing.
“Let me put it bluntly, we are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus so it does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from COVAX or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines.”
Nkenkasong said at least 20 countries were in the middle of the third wave, with Zambia, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo among those whose health facilities were being overwhelmed.
The COVAX program’s initial lofty ambitions to act as a clearing house for the world’s vaccines, collecting from the manufacturers in the most developed countries and quickly distributing to those in the most urgent need, have fallen flat.
About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections, Nkenkasong said.
More than half of poorer countries receiving doses via COVAX do not have enough supplies to continue, an official from the WHO said on Monday.


Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

Updated 24 June 2021

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

  • The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating
  • Several hundred marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Thailand’s capital on Thursday, marking the anniversary of the overthrow of the country’s absolute monarchy by renewing their demands that the government step down, the constitution be amended and the monarchy become more accountable.
The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating. It was their first large protest after a hiatus of about three months caused by the pandemic and the jailing of protest leaders, who have since been released on bail.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing widespread criticism that it botched pandemic recovery plans by failing to secure adequate vaccine supplies.
On June 24, 1932, a group of progressive army officers and civil servants proclaimed constitutional rule and the transition to parliamentary democracy, ending Thailand’s absolute monarchy. The anniversary in recent years has become an occasion for pro-democracy rallies.
Protesters gathered early Thursday by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional demonstration venue, to light candles and read out the 1932 proclamation of the end of the absolute monarchy.
Several hundred then marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution. The proposed changes, however, fall far short of those sought by the protesters, which include restoring more power to political parties and elected office holders.
“We come out today to insist on the principle that the constitution must come from the people,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a protest leader also known as Pai Dao Din.
The student-led pro-democracy movement sprung up last year, largely in reaction to the continuing influence of the military in government and hyper-royalist sentiment. The army in 2014 overthrew an elected government, and Prayuth, the coup leader, was named prime minister after a 2019 general election put in power a military-backed political party. Critics say the constitution enacted during military rule skewed election rules to favor the army’s proxy party.
The movement was able to attract crowds of as many as 20,000-30,000 people in Bangkok in 2020 and had followings in major cities and universities. However, a coronavirus surge late last year caused it to temporarily suspend activities and lose momentum.
The movement became controversial as its leaders focused on the monarchy in their speeches and activities. They charged that the king holds power and influence beyond that allowed under the constitution.
Since becoming king in 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn has gained more direct control over the vast fortune of the royal palace — estimated to exceed $30 billion — as well as command of some key military units in the capital.
During the same time, memorials, statues and other symbols associated with the 1932 revolution have been removed.
The monarchy is widely considered to be an untouchable bedrock element of Thai nationalism. Defaming key royals is punishable under a lese majeste law by up to 15 years in prison per count. Many people still revere the monarchy, and the military, a major power in Thai society, considers its defense a key priority.
The government responded to the protesters’ criticism of the monarchy by charging leaders under the lese majeste law.
Parit Chiwarak, among those jailed, said Thursday the protesters are standing by their original demands but perhaps shifting their focus.
“We still demand the monarchy’s reform. But this year Prayuth must be ousted,” said Parit, who is better known by the nickname Penguin.