Punjab and Haryana are best known for their sprawling agricultural fields and their contribution to the country's Green Revolution to make it self-sufficient in foodgrains. But there is a flip side to these green pastures: both states have to live with a smoky phase immediately after the paddy crop is harvested in October and November.
The problem is particularly acute in Punjab, where the farmers resort to large-scale burning of paddy straw that is left over after the crop is harvested.
Smoke from the burnt paddy straw has literally engulfed most parts of Punjab and some parts of Haryana. This not only reduces visibility but is causing breathing and other health-related issues. Be it state highways or village roads, the smoke and the haze caused by it are quite widespread.
Though there is an official ban on burning paddy straw, the farmers are doing so with impunity. In the absence of any clear-cut directions from the state government or any complaint from pollution control authorities, the police have not booked a single farmer for violating the ban and causing environmental pollution.
To cover up for the criticism of not taking action against those violating the ban, Punjab's Forest and Wildlife Preservation Minister Chunni Lal Bhagat has "urged the farmers of the state to stop stubble burning to keep the environment pollution free".
The Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has, through a notification, imposed a ban on burning of paddy straw in the state. Violators are supposed to be booked under Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act.
Though the minister has advised farmers to sell the stubble to biomass plants to generate electricity, farmers say that they resort to burning the paddy straw as there are no takers for it at the biomass plants in the vicinity of their villages.
"The government has not extended the facility near villages. Carrying it to faraway locations is unviable. Farmers are already under a lot of debt," farmer Amolak Singh of Sirhind told IANS.
The biomass plants are situated in Muktsar, Ferozepur, Patiala and Hoshiarpur districts.
"The smoke from the stubble burning is hazardous for health, besides becoming the reason for many accidents," Bhagat said.
The problem caused by the smoke compounds during evening and morning hours as visibility gets reduced.
"The government cannot register cases against farmers when there is no suitable alternative available to dispose of the paddy straw," Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Darshan Singh said.
Experts at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana have pointed out that the paddy straw burning was not only harmful to the environment but also affected the pests and bacterial and fungal availability in the soil, which is required for new crops. This reduces soil fertility.
Punjab, with just 1.54 percent of the country's geographical area, contributes over 60 percent of wheat and paddy to the national kitty.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at email@example.com)