Mukhtsar, Punjab: As the last of the paddy harvests continue to burn across Punjab, despite assurances by the state government that firm steps, including fines, are being levied to discourage farmers from indulging in a practice that results in a thick pollution blanket in much of north India, NDTV travelled to Mukhtsar, a district in south Punjab for a reality check.
Mukhtsar is known colloquially as 'Badal Garh', after the Badal village and current chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's constituency, Lambhi. The imprint of the Badal family is hard to miss across the district.
Ironically, this is the region where authorities say maximum fines have been imposed in recent times to discourage farmers from burning their crop.
"Majority of the fines have been in subdivision Mukhtsar; the amount is five thousand and four lakh is the total fine we have collected; it is very conspicuous, in the last four five days I believe the incidence has come down maybe because it was so visible", said Sumeet Kumar Jarangal, the Deputy Commissioner of Mukhtsar.
However, as NDTV travelled around Mukhtsar through its major towns and villages it was hard to imagine the efficacy and effectiveness of the fine-regime, with acres of farm-fires visible along the roads both on the highway and the interior.
In Lambhi, the chief minister's constituency, Harmeet Singh, a local farmer said, "The farmer who is unable to pay money for diesel (for their tractors), how do you expect him to pay fines?" highlighting that agrarian distress for small-farmers continues - they are under severe pressure to pay for their fuel and machine inputs and are trapped by the fine-regime, which pressures farmers to stop burning crop without providing them livelihood alternatives to do else wise.
But the governments' purported technical inputs are not reaching the ground in the way they intended it. Further, rice balers are in themselves no solution to the farmers' distress or indeed the pollution problem.
Two worlds exist side by side in Mukhtsar. At one end acres and acres of fields continue to burn and at the other end scant technical inputs are being utilised by farmers, often on loans they cannot repay.
Paddy balers are an example of machines some farmers take on loan in order to collect the reaped harvest. Once collected the rice-baler converts the stubs into blocks that are then sold to local factories. Alternately, private companies are now beginning to clear the fields for farmers but often not without a hidden cost. "From our fields the owners (companies) of rice-balers make bales out of the harvested stubs. They will now take these to factories to burn. Will that not emit any pollution?" asked Bahadur Singh, a farmer from Badal village. "It's easy for everyone to blame farmers for the pollution. But do you not see the pressures a farmer has to face, the difficulties that he himself faces when his crop is burned? If we were not hard-pressed to do it, or were actually receiving any help from the government, why would we burn at all?" Mr Singh said.
As NDTV travelled across five districts in South Punjab, a distance of over five hundred kilometres, the ground reality in Mukhtsar looked no different from the others. Most of all, farmers tended to echo each other's sentiments calling into question the state government's efforts at dealing with the farm-pollution problem.