No respite from Punjab farm fires, Sangrur leads the count again
According to the state’s agriculture department, the district has witnessed the highest number of farm fires every Kharif season since 2016, when the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre started mapping farm fires through satellite
In the Rabi (winter crop) season, Sangrur district in Punjab earned the distinction of having the highest wheat yield per hectare (52.65). Now, in the Kharif (monsoon crop) season, it has earned notoriety for having the highest number of farm fires.
To be sure, this is an annual phenomenon; according to the state’s agriculture department, the district has witnessed the highest number of farm fires every Kharif season since 2016, when the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre started mapping farm fires through satellite.
But this year is different for two reasons: Sangrur, in the heart of Malwa, is the home of chief minister Bhagwant Mann; it was also epicentre of the farmer movement (the farm protests of 2020-21).
There is a simple reason for this, despite Sangrur boasting among the highest number of machines that can handle straw, on- and off-site, and also having a paddy-straw based CNG plant: the complete surrender to the farm lobby.
“We are helpless, as the state government has asked not to use any force. Farmer unions are very strong and even the CM has agreed to their demand that no punitive action or FIR would be registered against erring farmers. When the DC, SSP and other top officials are silent, how we can act? Neither are we a law enforcement agency nor do we have any such power to restrain powers,” said an official of the Punjab Pollution Control Board who asked not to be named.
An official of the state agriculture department who asked not to be named seconded the sentiment. “Farmers are major vote bank, and no one wants to have conflict with him. Secondly, the farmer unions are very strong. They laid siege at residence of chief minister for two weeks and no official dared to vacate the streets. Lack of political will is a big reason behind the farm fires.”
That it has been so every year -- no matter which party is in power -- is small consolation for people in the northern plains, and especially Delhi, who bear the brunt of the smoke from the fires. During the winter, they routinely account for roughly 20% of Delhi’s pollution and can even go up to 45% (the Capital’s air is always bad; the farm fires just pushes it over the edge).
Punjab agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said the state government is intent on tackling fires.
“It’s not the first time that Sangrur is seeing the maximum number of farm fires. It’s been happening for a decade,” he said.
On October 30, Harbans Singh, the chief agriculture officer of Sangrur was suspended by the Punjab government. The agriculture department official cited above said the move is irrelevant as the suspended official had no power to curtail farm fires.
Thus far this year, Sangrur has seen 2,044 farm fires, almost 11% of the fires reported from the state. Paddy has been sown in 2.4 lakh hectares in Sangrur, and almost 72% of the harvest has been completed according to agriculture department officials. Once, the harvest crosses the 80%, they say, the number of farm fires sees a spike.
Sangrur recorded 9,705 cases in 2020. In 2021, 8,006 cases were reported from Sangrur but that was because a new district, Malerkotla, was carved from Sangrur. Malerkotla saw 1,383 fires in 2021.
On Tuesday, a total 1,842 cases were reported in Punjab out of which 345, almost 20%, were from Sangrur district. Over the past week, Sangrur has topped the list every day.
This is despite Sangrur having a paddy straw based bio-CNG plant at Lehraghagga. The plant is falling short of the quota of 50,000 MT of paddy straw for processing, as farmers are setting the residue on fire.
And this is also despite Sangrur having the highest number of ex-situ and in-situ machinery for handling of straw. The state government has provided this machinery by paying crores of rupees as subsidy. The district had 3,500 machines till 2021, and 1,500 have already been added this year, with another 1,000 to come in the next few days, according to the district collector, Jatinder Jorwal. He said that in view of massive fires, the subdivisional magistrate and other officials have been directed to reach out to every village for the next 10 days and motivate farmers to shun fires. He sounded hopeful -- amidst the fires.
Dhaliwal urged farmers to step in and help the state limit stubble burning incidents.
“As farm fires were going unabated, we suspended the chief agriculture official of Sangrur. I appeal to farmers to help state government to tackle this illegal practice as it won’t stop unless farmers willingly shun this farm fires,” he said.
In 2017, when then CM, Captain Amarinder Singh insisted on registering FIRs against errant farmers, the number of fires went down. But the farm protests -- a 14-month long one against three reformist federal farm laws that saw farmers lay siege to Delhi’s borders -- in 2020 changed everything.
“There is lot of machinery distributed in Sangrur for in-situ and ex-situ handling of straw, but farmers are adamant that they will burn straw,” contended a district administration official who asked not to be named. He added that no official wants get into a confrontation with farmers.
That’s the reason why the Lehragaga plant is operating at 21% capacity. Set up over 20 acres of land, this unit has a capacity of producing 33 TPD (tonnes per day) of bio-CNG. “We are short of straw, as farmers are not helping us and instead setting the straw on fire”, said an official at the plant who asked not to be named.
The farm leaders were triumphalist in their response.
Sukhdev Singh Kokri, general secretary of BKU Ugrahan, said, “The state government has assured us in writing that no action will be taken against farmers this year and cases registered against them last year will also be canceled. We wont allow anyone to use force against farmers or register any FIR”.
Kokri added that “rain in early October” delayed the harvest “leaving a shorter window between paddy harvest and wheat sowing” As a result, especially small farmers are “ opting for the easiest method of clearing their fields, i.e stubble burning,”. He said that if the government is serious about combating stubble burning, it should provide Rs. 200 per quintal for handling of straw.
Agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said that state government is serious on the issue of farm fires. “As farm fires were going unabated, we have suspended the chief agriculture official of Sangrur. I appeal to farmers to help state government to tackle this illegal practice as it won’t stop unless farmers willingly shun this farm fires.”
He contended that the number of farm fires would decrease in terms of area this year. Looking at the situation on the ground, however, that looks unlikely.