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LAHORE: Despite claims of a crackdown on smog causes by the Environment Protection Department (EPD) of Punjab, several hot spots or thermal anomalies appeared in a NASA satellite image on Oct 10, which, experts say, are the areas both in Pakistan and India where crop residue burning may be occurring. NASA satellite images are updated daily.

On Wednesday (Oct 10th), a thick cloud of smog covered Lahore and crop stubble burning incidents were reported. The NASA image showed these ‘hot spots’ spread all over west Punjab as well as several parts of India, especially near the border where crop burning may have occurred.

EPD Director General Syeda Malika says that while her department is in charge of determining air quality index (AQI) and alert levels, shutting down of air polluting industries, monitoring of ambient air quality and setting up AQ stations at specified locations, it don’t have the mandate of cracking down on the agricultural areas as such a step would be tantamount to ‘trespassing’.

“We can only see if industries are polluting because the Industries Department does not have the authority to do so while the stubble burning matter is in the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department.”

Ms Malika says smog committees have been formed at the tehsil, district and divisional level, headed by assistant commissioners, deputy commissioners and commissioners, respectively.

Nasa shows hot spots of crop residue burning as depts concerned look on

On Oct 1, the Home Department imposed Section 144 across Punjab to ban crop residue burning, keeping in view the time frame for rice crop harvesting whose stubble is burnt by farmers. The Home Department order states that under Section 144 a ban has been placed on acts of burning of crop residues, solid municipal waste, tyres, plastics, polythene, bags, rubber and leather items etc and would continue until Dec 16, 2018.

Agriculture Director General Zafaryab Haider, however, refuses to take complete blame for this problem. He says his department has been spreading awareness regarding the smog problem and it has even put up signs and notices for public awareness.

“Several cases have been registered against the farmers who have not followed the rules,” he argues. However, he did not give any numbers to prove his point, saying that the questions regarding implementation should be directed at the commissioner. He says the EPD has field officers who are also responsible for monitoring the situation at ground level.

But EPD Field Officer Misbahul Haq Lodhi says there is a serious shortage of staff and inspectors are expected to monitor not just the agriculture situation but also vehicular and industrial pollution among others. He says he has only four inspectors working under him for Lahore while many more officials are required to do the job. He admits “in all probability crop stubble burning is happening and wherever we have come to know of it, we have identified it”.

The EPD maintains that despite the problem of a few scattered incidents of crop residue burning in Pakistan, a major part of smog comes from Indian side with the winds.

INDIAN PROBLEM: Indian policy analyst Ujjwal Kumar from Jaipur-based think tank, Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International, says stubble burning of paddy is happening in Punjab (Indian) and Haryana and has been reported in the media.

“Reportedly, the Punjab CM has also confirmed it via an aerial survey,” he adds. “This is despite some incentives announced to the farmers and such burning being punishable with fines. Though the situation is reportedly better than the last year, the very instances of stack burning depict that carrots and sticks have limited effect.”

It means economics is not working for farmers or the potential takers of paddy straw, Mr Kumar argues. He says the agro-machines that are available to manage crop residue put additional economic burden on farmers, which according to one account, is to the tune of Rs2,500 to Rs3,000 per acre while some are even demanding Rs5,000 per acre.

“It is sad to see that there is no sustainable commercial model for valuable bioresources like paddy straw, which could be used as raw material for animal feed or power generation. This is despite presence of such technologies in India,” says Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general of CUTS.

“Long-term solution has to be based on circular economy principles, and government’s role is to give adequate policy environment for this to happen.”

In Pakistan too, the farmers are complaining of the high cost of agriculture.

Khalid Khokar, president of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, says since the past three months they are paying Rs5.35 for electricity (day and night) but this subsidy has not been extended and now farmers are worried about the bills. He complains that urea, which cost about Rs1,250/50kg has now to be bought at Rs1,750/50kg and the cost of pesticide had more than doubled.

“The government should give us 40 to 50pc subsidies on fertilizer, electricity, diesel and urea. Otherwise, the only cost-effective way to dispose of crop stubble for farmers would be burning even though this is not beneficial for the soil,” Mr Khokhar declares.

EPD INEPTITUDE: Environment lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam terms the EPD claims that it is not responsible for crop residue burning incidents ‘dangerous attitude’.

“This is a dangerous practice. They’re using these terms of reference (ToR) and deviating from their otherwise legally mandated role. Of course, the EPD regulates all environment,” he says.

Alam adds a clean environment is a fundamental right the state is supposed to protect it from being harmed.

“The EPD officials are just sitting on their hands,” he says. “The smog commission report says cars contribute to smog and propose improving fuel quality, requiring catalytic converters on cars and improving public transport. But where are these elements in the EPD’s crackdown?”

The EPD is meant to be following the orders of the Supreme Court which are based on the report of the Smog Commission. But according it, the EPD is also responsible for making daily AQ readings public.

The EPD has several unclear claims about the functionality of air quality equipment. Asked how many units are functioning, they claim that ‘calibration has to be done’ and so things are in process.

Syeda Malika also says that refills and cleaning of the equipment filters also have to be done.

“Currently, we have sent one unit each to Multan, Faisalabad and Gujranwala, while there are six certified labs in Lahore and three mobile AQ monitors, but these need to be properly calibrated,” she informs Dawn. She says one monitor was sent to the Pak-India border to measure AQ there but it has not been set up yet as it requires constant electricity and security while another unit is at the Met Office.

She claims that data is not being uploaded due to some internet issues. The EPD website, however, shows that AQ data from any station has not been uploaded since Sept 2.

Ms Malika claims that EPD has shut down 36 brick kilns of the obsolete style from July to Sept and would take action against more till Oct 20.

“Because of this action, we have several cases against us in court which goes against the original Supreme Court decision to counter smog caused by kilns,” she says.

In agriculture sector, Rafay says, the Punjab government has not announced any schemes to go for transition to new techniques.

EQUIPMENT ISSUE: Ms Syeda Malika also says the EPD has sent the ‘better equipment’ outside Lahore while it is taking assistance of private labs but more AQ monitors are needed.

Right outside the department’s office, three units are standing, out of which only one compact unit is functional, one mobile station is being worked upon while the second compact unit is heavily damaged.

A source, on condition of anonymity, told Dawn the basic problem is lack of maintenance of equipment.

“There are only two units functional in Lahore, one outside the EPD and one at the Met Office,” says the source. This is the situation after the EPD place the order for six AQ units in 2017.

The source adds that at least 104 daily readings out of 365, from the same spot – and over a two-year period – would show the trend of air pollution. This is the proper procedure but it is not being done.

At present, Punjab has nine units (three from Horiba Japan and six from Austria), Sindh has three – all functional, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa one each which are not working.

In comparison, India has 1,200 stations, China 35,000, Iran 75, Dubai 100. Minimum requirement for Punjab is 240 monitoring stations.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2018