Farm fires have begun to appear on NASA’s satellite imagery of northern India’s plains, with six fire events recorded in Punjab and two each in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh since September 15, data compiled by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) shows.
Every year, crop residue burning is monitored from September 15 till November 30, and data compiled by the Consortium for Research on Agroecosystem Monitoring and Modelling from Space (CREAMS) — a centre under IARI — reveals that between September 15 and 18, Punjab recorded six fires – all of which occurred on September 16. This figure is lower than previous years — in the same period last year, Punjab had recorded 22 fires, while the count was 11 in 2021.
Haryana meanwhile has recorded a farm fire each on September 15 and 16, with no fire recorded on September 17 or 18. In comparison, Haryana recorded only one farm fire in all of September last year – on September 18. Uttar Pradesh’s count of two fires came on September 16 this year. In comparison, the state recorded its first farm fire count last year on September 30.
VK Sehgal, professor and principal scientist at IARI, who is a part of CREAMS, said a clear trend will begin to emerge from October, when the monsoon has withdrawn and harvesting will generally begin.
“What we tend to observe in September are isolated fires, generally occurring in Amritsar or Tarn Taran in Punjab, since they primarily grow potato and that has a different harvesting cycle in comparison to paddy. Despite lack of rains in August, Punjab is still likely to see a bumper crop this year, which again means more efforts are required on the ground to control fires,” he said.
Every year, Delhi faces a public health crisis with the emanation of farm fires in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. This causes a smog jacket to form over northern India, particularly Delhi. This year, however, sowing has been impacted by an abnormal monsoon pattern.
Stubble burning generally starts impacting Delhi’s air quality from October onwards, when the wind direction becomes northwesterly, following the withdrawal of the southwest monsoon in late September.
This year, sowing has also been impacted by an abnormal monsoon pattern, which saw a rain deficit of 10% across the country. This was followed by above normal rainfall in July, which saw northwest India record an excess of 59% and flooding in parts of Punjab, Haryana and even Uttar Pradesh. Over the last week, northwest India is also recording rain, which can push residue burning to October, experts say.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says September is generally the ideal period for state governments to identify problems on the ground and intervene. “We generally start to see sporadic fires from September 15 onwards and till the end of the month, the state governments have time to reach out to farmers on the ground and use early data to ensure there are adequate machines deployed. Wherever a machine cannot be distributed, it is important to ensure there is a tie-up for collection of the residue,” she said, stating last year’s trend of a dip in fire numbers was encouraging.
“With rains, we can generally see no farm fires and as soon as the rains stop, there can be a spike. Last year was similar, as rains in September pushed residue burning to October,” she added.