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.

China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

Updated 26 January 2020

China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

  • Coronavirus’ transmission ability getting stronger
  • China confirms 1,975 people infected, 56 dead

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday, with more than 2,000 people in China infected and 56 killed by the disease.
Health authorities around the world are racing to prevent a pandemic after a handful of cases of infection were reported outside China, including in Thailand, Australia, the United States and France.
The mayor of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, said he expected another 1,000 new patients in the city, which was stepping up construction of special hospitals.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because much about it is still unknown, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said the incubation period for the virus can range from one to 14 days, during which infection can occur, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS was a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
“According to recent clinical information, the virus’ ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger,” Ma told reporters.
The Lunar New Year holiday, traditionally celebrated by hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling around the country and abroad to see family, began on Friday but has been severely disrupted by the outbreak.
Ma said China would intensify its containment efforts, which have so far included transportation and travel curbs and the cancelation of big events.
The country may extend the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing a meeting hosted by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Hong Kong has six confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping described the situation as “grave” on Saturday.
China confirmed 2,051 cases of infection as of 7 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Jan. 26, while the death toll from the virus remained at 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Health officials in Orange County, California, reported that a third case had been registered in the United States in a traveler from Wuhan, who was in isolation and in good condition.
On Saturday, Canada declared a first “presumptive” confirmed case in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. Australia confirmed its first four cases.
No fatalities have been reported outside China.

On Sunday, China temporarily banned nationwide the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society called on China to make the ban permanent.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was working with China to arrange a charter flight for Japanese nationals to return from Wuhan.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown and transport links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.

Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Beijing also postponed the reopening of the city’s schools and universities after the Lunar New Year holiday, state radio reported. Hong Kong had already delayed the reopening of schools to Feb. 17.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the SARS virus eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
Illustrating the extend of disruption to life in China, overall passenger travel declined by nearly 29% on Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, from a year earlier, with air passengers down nearly 42%, a transportation ministry official said.
Many cinemas across China were closed with major film premieres postponed.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Costa Cruises said they had canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before Feb. 2.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the holiday period, has already closed.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of these efforts.