Delhi holds breath as burning farms herald pollution season

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Indian farmers block the train tracks and a station during a protest against the central and state governments' push to clamp down on stubble crop burning in Batala, some 45km from Amritsar, on October 18, 2018. (AFP)
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In this photo taken on October 16, 2018, a farmer burns straw stubble in his field at Ishargarh village in the northern Indian state of Haryana. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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Delhi holds breath as burning farms herald pollution season

  • Many farmers feel scapegoated for the modern-day problems of India’s fast-growing, chaotic cities
  • Satellite imagery shows countless spot fires already burning in Haryana and Punjab, two breadbasket states bordering Delhi

ISHARGARH, India: Harpal Singh struck a match and watched his fields burn, the acrid smoke drifting toward New Delhi where a lethal smog cocktail is once again intensifying over the world’s most polluted megacity.
Every November, air pollution in northern India reaches levels unimaginable in most parts of the world, forcing schools shut and filling hospital wards with wheezing patients.
As winter descends, cooler air traps car fumes, factory emissions and construction dust close to the ground, fomenting a toxic brew of harmful pollutants that regularly exceed 30 times the World Health Organization safe limit.
The scourge is compounded as farmers like Singh — rushing to ready their fields for next season’s wheat crop — use fire to quickly and cheaply clear their land.
He knows slash-and-burn farming is illegal and that doing so, year after year, helps sicken millions in the Indian capital and beyond.
But local authorities appear powerless to stop it and — looming health crisis or not in Delhi — the narrow window to plant for the winter harvest is closing.
“We have no other choice but to burn the straw,” Singh told AFP in Ishargarh, a village in Haryana state, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of Delhi.
“We know the smoke pollutes the air. But it is the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of the (crop) residue,” the 65-year-old farmer told AFP, as burning straw crackled and popped behind him.

This smoke is already reaching Delhi, bringing a familiar sepia haze and a bad omen for officials wanting to avoid a third straight year of record-setting smog.
Deterrents, such as fines of up to $200 for farmers flouting the law, appear to have limited effect.
Satellite imagery shows countless spot fires already burning in Haryana and Punjab, two breadbasket states bordering Delhi.
S. Narayanan, from Haryana’s State Pollution Control Board, said 300,000 rupees ($4100) in fines had been issued and fires were down 40 percent in some areas.
“But our intention is not only to take punitive action, but to educate the farmers,” he told AFP.
Farmers represent powerful voting blocs in rural states like Haryana and Punjab, and local authorities are reluctant to upset them.
Efforts to persuade farmers, many living below the poverty line, to adopt alternative methods of land clearance have fallen on deaf ears.
Many have balked at suggestions of buying “Happy Seeders” — expensive machines which according to media reports cost at least 150,000 rupees — that sow wheat without needing to dispose of the leftover straw.
The government is offering a subsidy of 50 percent to individuals and 80 percent to groups of farmers to encourage them to use the machines.
“We are already in debt... and we can’t afford even the subsidised machines,” said Karnail Singh, a 60-year-old farmer. He suggested the government pay farmers by the acre not to burn their fields.
Television ads, social media campaigns and meetings at the village level have also had limited success.
Powerful farmers unions say many of the government’s ideas — such as encouraging farmers to sell straw to factories — overlook extra costs imposed on poor rural families.
“Who will bear the cost of transporting the straw? Farmers are also concerned about the pollution, but they are helpless,” said Sucha Singh from Bhartiya Kisan Union, a farmers’ rights group.

Many farmers feel scapegoated for the modern-day problems of India’s fast-growing, chaotic cities.
The WHO in May listed 14 Indian cities in the world’s top 15 with the dirtiest air, with Delhi dubbed the most polluted major center.
“Farmers are blamed for the pollution, but nobody talks about the factories and cars and buses which are the main culprits,” Singh said.
Others are more defiant.
“We are always the soft targets. We will continue to burn stubble. Let the government do what it can,” said another farmer Harbans Singh.
With smoke on the horizon, the Delhi government is squaring off for a fight with its neighbors.
It recently closed its last coal-fired power plant but the city’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal warned of another smog crisis if Punjab and Haryana failed to take “concrete steps” on crop fires.
“The entire region including Delhi will again become (a) gas chamber,” he said on October 12.
“People will again face difficulty in breathing. This is criminal.”


Protests in Bangladesh after girl is burned to death

Updated 19 April 2019
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Protests in Bangladesh after girl is burned to death

  • Nusrat Jahan Rafi told her family she was lured to the roof of her rural school in the town of Feni on April 6 and asked to withdraw the charges by five people clad in burqas
  • The violence has shaken Bangladesh, triggering protests and raising concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conservative nation of 160 million people

DHAKA, Bangladesh: Dozens of protesters gathered in Bangladesh’s capital on Friday to demand justice for an 18-year-old woman who died after being set on fire for refusing to drop sexual harassment charges against her Islamic school’s principal.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi told her family she was lured to the roof of her rural school in the town of Feni on April 6 and asked to withdraw the charges by five people clad in burqas. When she refused, she said her hands were tied and she was doused in kerosene and set alight.
Rafi told the story to her brother in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and he recorded her testimony on his mobile phone. She died four days later in a Dhaka hospital with burns covering 80% of her body.
The violence has shaken Bangladesh, triggering protests and raising concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conservative Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people where sexual harassment and violence are often unreported, victims are intimidated and the legal process is often lengthy. Many avoid reporting to police because of social stigma.
“We want justice. Our girls must grow up safely and with dignity,” Alisha Pradhan, a model and actress, told The Associated Press during Friday’s demonstration. “We protest any forms of violence against women, and authorities must ensure justice.”
Tens of thousands of people attended Rafi’s funeral prayers in Feni, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised Rafi’s family when they met in Dhaka that those responsible would be punished.
At least 17 people, including students, have been arrested in connection with the case, said Banaj Kumar Majumder, the head of the Police Bureau of Investigation.
In late March, Rafi filed a complaint with police that the principal of her madrasa, or Islamic school, had called her into his office and touched her inappropriately and repeatedly. Her family agreed to help her to file the police complaint, which prompted police to arrest the principal, infuriating him and his supporters. Influential local politicians backed the principal, and ruling party members were also among the arrested.
Police said the arrested suspects told them during interrogations that the attack on Rafi was planned and ordered by the school’s principal from prison when his men went to see him. It was timed for daytime so that it would look like a suicide attempt, Majumder said.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Rafi’s family said that they had received death threats before the attack telling them to drop the case.
While Rafi’s case is now being treated with urgency, that wasn’t the case until her death.
A video taken on March 27 while Rafi reported the assault shows the local police chief registering her complaint but telling her that the incident was “not a big deal.” The chief was later removed from the police station for negligence in dealing with the case.
For Bangladeshi women, it is often not easy to file sensitive complaints with police. Victims often fear further harassment and bullying. Police also often show an unwillingness to investigate such cases and are often accused of being influenced by local politics or bribes.
But the call for dealing with violence against women, especially related to sexual harassment and assault, is also getting louder.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death highlights the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously and ensure that they can safely seek a legal remedy and be protected from retaliation.”