The Punjab government has said it will not act against farmers who set fire to their paddy fields this season, rolling back a key sanction imposed to quell stubble blazes in the agrarian state that lead to a massive pollution spike in the Capital during the winter harvest, as it buckled to pressure from cultivators who were protesting against the penalty.
According to a notification issued by Punjab’s chief secretary Vijay Kumar Janjua on Thursday night, state authorities will rescind “red entries” marked in the land records of over 4,300 farmers in the state from September 15 to November 14.
A red entry disallowed a farmer from being able to take a loan against the plot, mortgage it or sell it. To be sure, the rule, when in place, failed to significantly dissuade farmers from setting their fields afire.
Punjab agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said the state is “committed to withdrawing action against farmers”.
“Since the beginning, our government was clear that farmers will not be penalised for burning crop residue. Whatever action was taken in a few districts was in accordance with directions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). However, the government is committed to withdrawing all types of action taken against farmers,” Dhaliwal said in Faridkot late on Thursday night, a move that prompted veteran farm leader Jagjit Singh Dallewal to call off a six-day hunger strike against the penalty that was gathering momentum in the state.
The decision, however, presents a significant setback in northwest India’s efforts to stem the annual winter pollution, which is spurred by smoke from stubble fires in Punjab. Delhi, in particular, is plunged into a public health emergency with the air quality at hazardous levels. Farmers in the upwind state set fire to their paddy stalks between in October-November every year, to clear their fields in preparation for the winter crop.
The Aam Aadmi Party is in power in both Punjab and Delhi.
Punjab clocked 49,854 farm fires between September 15 and November 25, according to data from the state government. Though this is a drop from the 71,246 fires last year and 82,702 in 2020, this is largely negated by a sharp increase the farm area set afire. Data from state authorities showed that cultivators in Punjab burnt paddy straw over 1.48 million hectares of farm land during the harvest season this year, 5% more than 1.41 million hectares last year.
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According to Harminder Pal Singh, professor of environment studies at Panjab University in Chandigarh, said the move “proves that the state is not intent on going strict against farmers”.
“Authorities should ensure better stubble management and should consider the rampant air pollution caused by residue-burning,” he said.
The state government’s reversal came amid growing protests in the state.
Apart from Dallewal’s protest, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM-Apolitical), started an indefinite blockade of roads in six districts — Patiala, Mansa, Bathinda, Faridkot, Amritsar and Hoshiarpur — in the state on November 16, demanding a withdrawal of the red entry rule.