The Punjab government will cancel all police cases against farmers who burn stubble, or agricultural waste, Chief Minister Charanjit Channi said Wednesday, as nearby Delhi and the national capital region lie smothered under a toxic and poisonous haze that has been partially linked to these fires.
The decision comes months before an Assembly election in which farmers (the farm laws protest and stubble burning) will likely play a major role. Chief Minister Channi also said cases filed during such protests will also be dropped.
"We want farmers to stop stubble burning and government will take strict action. But we are cancelling all FIRs registered for stubble burning till now. I am appealing to farmers not to burn stubble. The centre also needs to ensure farmers don't burn stubble " he said after a farmer leaders from 32 unions.
"Many FIRs were (also) registered against farmers by the state government since this agitation started. We have decided to cancel all FIRs related to farm agitation," the Chief Minister added.
Shocking air quality levels in and around Delhi, and the national capital region, have been the focus of a charged back-and-forth in the Supreme Court.
One of the main points has been the share of farm fires to pollution levels - specifically contribution to PM2.5 levels in the atmosphere. PM2.5 particles - which have been well above safe levels in Delhi NCR since Diwali - can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as lung cancer.
Punjab has recorded over 67,000 farm fires this season, a member of the state's pollution control board told news agency PTI.
According to SAFAR - the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research - the share of farm fires to pollution over Delhi NCR on Wednesday dropped to a low of six percent.
But this was from a high of 35 per cent last week and 48 per cent post-Diwali.
A blame game erupted in the top court this week over farm fires data, after the centre said only 10 per cent of the pollution is due to stubble burning. This contradicted the Delhi government's claim - that farmers are largely to blame for the toxic air that envelops the national capital every year.
The court steered the focus away from the numbers and the rush to assign responsibility, and stressed the need to address the problem at hand - farmers burning stubble. Chief Justice NV Ramana asked governments to "pursue and request farmers to not burn stubble for a week".
Justice Surya Kant also pointed out that fancy machinery offered by the centre and state as an alternative to stubble burning were well out of the financial reach of small and marginal cultivators.
"Irrespective of figures in affidavits, we have to consider the plight of farmers...what compels him to burn stubble? Nobody is concerned about that... People sleeping in five-star hotels in Delhi blame farmers. Look at such small landholdings. Can they afford the machines you talk about?" he asked.
Farmers approached by the Punjab government have refused use of these machines, which they call "not feasible", and have demanded bonuses for waste management, PTI reported.
While the centre and states look to pin the blame on each other or the farmers, the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi (hauled up by the court) last night issued a series of short-term directions.
These include closing of schools and colleges and asking government employees to work from home, as well as closing six of 11 thermal power plants and banning entry of trucks. It falls short of a complete lockdown, though, particularly since private firms are only "encouraged" to issue WFH orders as well.
Air quality levels in Delhi NCR are expected to improve over the next few days, but only because windspeeds are supposed to increase and carry the pollutants away.
With input from PTI