Any mention of Punjab’s countryside evokes images of lush green fields peppered with seductive yellow mustard flowers — a pretty local girl running through them, her bright dupatta fluttering in clean countryside breeze. But today, the idyllic landscape is marred by an ugly patchwork of smouldering black earth next to the green fields, its air heavy with the suffocating stench of burnt straw.
TOI reporters fanned out across Punjab and Haryana to assess the ground situation as Delhi continued to choke in one of the worst smog attacks over the past 17 years. They found out that despite the concerns raised by the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), farmers haven’t stopped setting fire to paddy straw, the agricultural waste left over from the harvest season. The farmers told TOI that they were well aware of the ecological hazards of stubble burning, but insisted that the alternatives to the practice were beyond their reach. When a TOI lensman started clicking pictures of farm workers setting straw on fire near Talhan village in Jalandhar, a group of women working nearby reacted angrily. The farm labourers beat a hasty retreat, meanwhile, not wanting to get caught red-handed as the state government has imposed a fine on the practice. Clearly, the farmers in Punjab are aware that stubble burning is illegal. But they continue to be continue to be defiant.

“Let the authorities demonstrate, on our fields, the solutions they are talking about in their air-conditioned offices,” said Harinder Singh of Gandhawan village, near Phagwara. All the fields next to his have turned to ash. “Combine harvesters (see accompanying story) came on the scene several years ago, but none of the experts showed us how the remaining straw would be effectively dealt with,” he added. “Though a couple of solutions are being suggested, their success is limited and the costs involved are heavy,” Harinder added.

Gurpreet Singh, a farmer from Loharka Road in Amritsar, said he was aware of the fact that stubble burning had adverse effects on not just the environment, but also his land. “But crop prices are already not viable, and there is inflation… how can I spend extra on machinery to remove stubble? It is easier to burn it,” he added. Another farmer, Preetam Singh, who had set stubble on fire over his seven acre field, said: “If the government is so concerned about Delhi’s pollution and holds stubble burning responsible for it, then it should study all the aspects and address the issue on priority . But you just can’t impose fines on us.”
“Forget Delhi; there are times when even we have trouble breathing on account of the smoke. But all this has become a part of our lives now,” said Sukhwant Singh of Bir Talaab village near Bathinda.
Bathinda deputy commissioner Basant Garg said orders banning stubble burning had been issued, and added that 11 cases were registered within one day, on October 27, in the district. However, the farmers claim that the Punjab government is going soft on the issue, with assembly elections just a few months away.(Inputs by IP Singh, Yudhvir Rana and Neel Kamal. Some names have been changed to protect identity)