Burning truth: Farmers set fire to fields as Delhi braces for smog

An Indian farmer burns rice straw after harvesting paddy crops in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar. (AFP)
Updated 17 October 2018
0

Burning truth: Farmers set fire to fields as Delhi braces for smog

  • Just weeks remain before the 29 mn people living in greater Delhi are plunged into their annual battle with extreme air pollution
  • WHO said earlier this year India was home to the world's 14 most polluted cities, with Delhi ranked the sixth most polluted

SHAHJAHANPUR, India: Hours after a mechanized harvester chugged through the rice paddy, flames and a thick plume of black smoke rose into the twilight sky in India’s northern Haryana state as farmers burned the residue to prepare for the next season’s planting.
Similar fires last week in the nation’s farm states of Haryana and neighboring Punjab suggest that efforts by authorities to stave off a massive spike in pollution in nearby New Delhi in the next few weeks may fail.
Late last year, Delhi and a large part of northern India were covered in a dangerous toxic smog that forced authorities to shut schools, ban diesel-run generators, construction, burning of garbage and non-essential truck deliveries.
The World Health Organization said earlier this year that India was home to the world’s 14 most polluted cities, with Delhi ranked the sixth most polluted.
As pollution levels climbed to 12 times the recommended limit and the Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency in the capital last year, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called the city a “gas chamber.” On Friday, he warned the city may face the same fate this year because of the unrestrained stubble burning.
A spokesman for the federal environment ministry declined to comment. A spokesman for the Haryana government was not available for comment.
Gurkirat Kirpal Singh, a spokesman for the Punjab government, said the state administration had formed a committee of senior officials which was working to ensure that incidents of stubble burning drastically come down this year. He did not elaborate.
An official at the prime minister’s office, which is coordinating efforts to bring down pollution in the capital, declined to comment.
The smog worsens when the heavy smoke from crop burning combines with vehicle and industrial emissions at a time of year when wind speeds drop significantly. Fireworks set off to celebrate the major Hindu festival of Diwali, that fell on Oct. 19 last year and will be on Nov. 7 this year, exacerbated the problem.
After last year’s crisis, the Indian government introduced measures aimed at curbing the crop fires, in particular offering to pay up to 80 percent of certain farm equipment, such as a Straw Management System (SMS) that attaches to a harvester and shreds the residue.
The plan was for the shredded material to be mulched using another machine and irrigated at least twice to get it to decompose. All this would be done without any crops being burned. The only problem is that 14 farmers Reuters spoke to on a visit last week to six villages in the rice and wheat growing areas of Haryana and Punjab, said the plan wasn’t working.
They say that was largely because the subsidy for SMS and mulching machines wasn’t covering the costs of the equipment and the labor involved. It was still much cheaper and easier to burn the residue.
“Farmers know about the repercussions of burning crop stubble and that’s why you won’t come across a single farmer who really wants to continue with the practice,” said Hardev Singh, 58, who grows rice and wheat in the village of Shahjahanpur.
But the cost of disposing of crop residue is so prohibitive that most farmers are forced to set the stubble on fire, Singh said.
It is also time-consuming, and the farmers do not have a lot of time. After harvesting rice, farmers get a short window to plant winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed, and late sowing means lower yields.
The farmers also complained about the lengthy bureaucratic processes to claim the subsidies for the machines.
“The fact that government officials want us to use expensive machines like SMS clearly shows that they are far removed from reality,” said Sandeep Pannu, who leases his farms to small growers in Phulak village in Haryana state.
For most farmers, burning the residue does not cost more than 2,000 rupees ($27.20) per acre but using the machines raises the cost to 6,000 rupees despite an 80 percent subsidy from the government, Pannu said.
The message from Haryana and Punjab could be disconcerting for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose office has been actively involved in framing policies and taking initiatives to help avoid a repeat of last year’s dangerous spike in pollution levels.
“The message from the top office is to take steps to avoid the repeat of 2017. Otherwise heads will roll,” said a senior Indian government official who declined to be identified in line with government policy.
Other measures by the authorities to combat air pollution this year include pressing road sweeping machines and water sprinklers into service in an attempt to reduce dust in Delhi, and large-scale planting of saplings to eventually act as a shield against pollution, said the official.
“We’ll also ensure that no one gets to burn dry leaves, garbage and other solid waste and we’ll see to it that all construction sites get covered,” he said, conceding that the first two weeks of November, when crop residue burning peaks, would be critical.
That is also when India’s majority Hindu community will celebrate the Diwali festival, traditionally ushered in with the setting off of firecrackers. Last year, the Supreme Court banned the sale of fireworks in the capital until after Diwali, but many residents bought them in neighboring states.
The steps taken by authorities could be meaningless if the crop stubble burning continues.
“What is happening right now is that we are looking at the satellite data and we can see a little bit of crop burning, which could increase and intensify by the first week of November,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the New Delhi-based think-tank, the Center for Science and Environment.
Satellite images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US confirm the burning has started across the two states.
Last year 40,000 and 25,000 crop residue burning incidents were recorded in Punjab and Haryana respectively, said the Indian government official.
The stubble burning issue has become more acute in recent years because mechanized harvesters leave more of a residue than when crops are plucked by hand. Such harvesters are increasingly popular in the two relatively prosperous states, where farmer lobbies are also politically powerful.


Huawei founder says company would not share user secrets

Updated 55 min 46 sec ago
0

Huawei founder says company would not share user secrets

  • The statement was a response to accusations Huawei is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or is required to facilitate Chinese spying
  • He said the security concerns have yet to have a significant effect on Huawei’s business

SHENZHEN, China: The founder of China’s Huawei, the world’s biggest supplier of network gear to phone and Internet companies, says his company would not share secrets about its customers and their communication networks.
Ren Zhengfei spoke in a rare meeting with foreign reporters as Huawei Technologies Ltd. tries to protect its access to global telecom carriers that are investing heavily in next-generation technology.
His comments were the 74-year-old former military engineer’s most direct public response to accusations his company is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or is required to facilitate Chinese spying.
Huawei is China’s first global tech brand. The United States, Australia, Japan and some other governments have imposed curbs on use of its technology over such concerns.
“We would definitely say no to such a request,” said Ren when asked how the company would respond to a government demand for confidential information about a foreign buyer of its telecom technology.
Ren said neither he nor the company have ever received a government request for “improper information” about anyone.
Asked whether Huawei would challenge such an order in court, Ren chuckled and said it would be up to Chinese authorities to “file litigation.”
Huawei is facing heightened scrutiny as phone carriers prepare to roll out fifth-generation technology in which Huawei is a leading competitor. 5G is designed to support a vast expansion of networks to serve medical devices, self-driving cars and other technology. That increases the cost of potential security failures and has prompted governments increasingly to treat telecoms communications networks as strategic assets.
The company’s image suffered a new blow last week when Polish authorities announced one of its Chinese employees was arrested on spying charges. Huawei announced it fired the employee and said the allegations had nothing to do with the company.
Ren is the father of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested Dec. 1 in Canada on US charges related to possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran.
Ren said he couldn’t discuss Meng’s case while it still was before a court. But he said Huawei obeys the law, including export restrictions, wherever it operates.
Ren expressed gratitude to Canadian justice officials for their treatment of Meng, who was released on bail and is staying in a house in Vancouver. He also expressed thanks to her fellow jail inmates prior to her release “for treating her kindly.”
“After all the evidence is made public, we will rely on the justice system,” he said. “We are sure there will be a just conclusion to this matter.
Two Canadians were arrested by Chinese authorities on national security charges, prompting suggestions abroad they might be hostages to secure Meng’s release. On Monday, a Chinese court announced another Canadian had been sentenced to death in a drug case after he was ordered retried.
Asked how he felt that Huawei was linked to accusations Beijing took hostages, Ren said he saw no connection between the Canadians and Meng’s case.
Dressed in a blue sport coat and an open-necked light blue shirt, Ren was jovial and animated during the two hour and 20 minute meeting.
Ren said he became a Communist Party member in the early 1980s after the state press published reports about his development of a measuring tool for an engineering project. Earlier, he couldn’t join because his father was deemed a “capitalist roader,” but the party was trying to promote young, technologically capable people after the violent, ultra-radical Cultural Revolution in 1976.
Ren founded Huawei in 1987 to sell imported telecom switching gear to Chinese phone companies after the PLA disbanded his engineering unit, according to the company.
Despite his party membership, Huawei makes decisions based on its customers’ needs, Ren said.
“I don’t see a close connection between my personal political beliefs and our commercial decisions,” he said.
Huawei’s US market evaporated in 2012 after a congressional panel said the company and its smaller Chinese rival, ZTE Corp., were security risks and urged phone companies to avoid them.
But Huawei passed Sweden’s LM Ericsson to become the biggest supplier of network gear and its smartphone brand displaced Apple Inc. last year as the No. 2 global seller behind Samsung.
The company forecasts last year’s revenue will exceed $100 billion for the first time. Ren said this year’s target is $125 billion.
Huawei says it is employee-owned. Ren said no government entity or any other investor who isn’t a current or former employee owns “one cent of Huawei shares.”
Ren said Huawei has no research cooperation with China’s People’s Liberation Army and no dedicated unit for military sales and he knew of no PLA purchases of civilian technology.
Ren said the security concerns have yet to have a significant effect on Huawei’s business. The company has signed 5G contracts with 30 carriers and has shipped 25,000 base stations, he said.
Huawei has plenty of opportunities even if it faces higher barriers in some markets, he said.
“If we are not allowed to sell in certain markets, we will have a smaller operation,” he said. “So long as we can feed our employees, we are satisfied.”
Ren defended Huawei’s decision to remain privately held — a status that has fueled questions about its intentions and who controls it. He said that helped to preserve its long-term focus on customer service and product development.
Publicly owned companies care more about a “beautiful balance sheet” while Huawei is focused on a “strong industry structure,” he said.
“Capital tends to be greedy.”
Ren also warned against allowing security concerns to divide the globe into isolated markets with incompatible technology standards — a scenario some people have suggested might result from US-Chinese tensions.
“Arbitrarily dividing the world into two technology camps can only harm the interests of all society,” he said.
Asked about President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Twitter that he might intervene in Meng’s case if that facilitated a resolution of Washington’s tariff battle with Beijing, Ren said he would wait to see whether Trump takes action.
“As for President Trump as president, I still believe he is a great president,” Ren said. He said Trump was elected to cut taxes, which he believed was beneficial for American industry.
However, he said, “If companies are getting frightened by the detention of certain individuals, then investors might be scared away, and that is not in the interests of the United States.”
Ren said he didn’t believe Huawei would face US penalties similar to those that nearly drove smaller Chinese rival ZTE Corp. out of business. Washington barred ZTE from buying American technology over its exports to Iran and North Korea but restored access after the company paid a $1 billion fine, replaced its executive team and installed US-selected compliance monitors.
“What happened to ZTE, I don’t believe will happen to Huawei,” said Ren. However, he said, “if it did happen to Huawei, I don’t believe the impact would be very significant. I believe telecom operators would continue to trust Huawei.”
Ren said Huawei doesn’t want Beijing to retaliate for foreign restrictions by hampering market access for Apple Inc. and other rivals.
“In spite of setbacks in some countries, we are still supportive of China becoming a more open country.”