Patiala: 60 per cent of the unprecedented pollution that has wrapped Delhi in toxic smog for days, says experts, is because of smoke from Punjab, where farmers are continuing to burn crop to clear their fields. With state elections now months away, the Akali Dal government has been accused of not trying hard enough to get them to stop.
Punjab's Agriculture Minister Tota Singh vehemently denies this. "This is an attempt to defame us. We have undertaken a strong campaign against farmers (who burn their fields). To a large extent this has been brought under control", Mr Singh said to NDTV in Delhi.
But a drive through Punjab tests the minister's assertion. Burning fields are a common sight and a thick blanket of smoke is visible along much of the 200 km highway connecting Patiala to Bhatinda.
Farmers say the state government has not helped them with alternative technology to clear the stubble of their old crop so that they can sow a new. "Our only option is to burn the fields and clear them," said a farmer near Sangrur, about 140 km from state capital Chandigarh.
In neighbouring Barnala, farmer Joginder Singh Sandhu said while the Akali government had allegedly started fining farmers who burned their crop, this was not being enforced strictly since farmers are a large vote bank, nearly 60 per cent.
"We support these fines if they lead to a reduction of pollution since we ourselves and our families are also deeply affected by pollution. But the government is not doing anything (about these fines); they are only concerned about elections and votes," Mr Sandhu said.
Back in Delhi, where schools have been closed and construction work has been stopped in emergency measures as pollution peaks, Punjab's role was an issue of bitter debate when union environment minister Anil Dave met officials from Delhi and Punjab yesterday.
The centre has advised the Delhi government to stop blaming another state. "As far as the question of blaming other states goes, they are responsible but only 20 per cent. 80 per cent of the pollution is 'Delhi ka Kachra (Delhi's garbage),'" said Mr Dave.
The AAP government has linked that to the ruling BJP's need to deflect blame from it partner in Punjab, the Akali Dal. AAP clashes with the AKali-BJP combine in the Punjab elections early next year.
According to the National Environment Engineering Institute in Nagpur, paddy burning in Punjab accounts for about 60 per cent of the particulate matter that is choking the national capital. Some reports have even suggested that the main window to control farm fires in Punjab has now been lost since farmers have been burning crop for over a month now.
That would mean that Delhi may have to just sit and wait for the toxic smoke hanging over it to disappear.