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.”


Brazil seeks to privatize key stretches of Amazon highways

Updated 38 min 36 sec ago
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Brazil seeks to privatize key stretches of Amazon highways

  • President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is seeking to overhaul Brazil’s poor transportation infrastructure
  • The Trans-Amazonian highway was inaugurated in the 1970s but only a fraction of its nearly 3,000 kilometers were paved
BRASILIA: Brazil will add the Trans-Amazonian Highway to the list of projects for privatization, its infrastructure minister said on Tuesday, seeking new investment to pave part of a dictatorship-era roadway already blamed for extensive deforestation.
The road concession will be added to a priority list for privatization at a meeting next month, Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Freitas told Reuters in an interview.
The government will package a short section of highway with a concession to run a major section of BR-163, a key northern route for shipping Brazilian grains, a ministry spokesman said later on Tuesday. The 40-km (25-mile) section of the Trans-Amazonian up for privatization will connect BR-163 with the river port of Miritituba in northern state of Para, the spokesman said.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is seeking to overhaul Brazil’s poor transportation infrastructure, which raises costs and causes delays for the commodity-exporting powerhouse, by seeking private investors to operate dozens of road, rail and airport projects.
On Monday, government Secretary Adalberto Vasconcelos, who has been tasked with creating public-private infrastructure partnerships, said the country would privatize more airports and secure new investment for railways.
For roadways, five concessions are slated for auction this year with a long pipeline of projects to follow, according to Freitas. BR-262/381 in the state of Minas Gerais, sometimes called the “Road of Death” because its poor condition has contributed to lethal accidents, will also be put on the privatization list next month, he said.
The Trans-Amazonian highway, officially known as BR-230, was inaugurated in the 1970s under Brazil’s military dictatorship, but only a fraction of its nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,864-miles) were paved and much of the existing roadway has fallen into disrepair. It stretches from the coastal state of Paraiba deep into Amazonas state. Original plans for it to reach the border with Peru were never completed.
Nevertheless, research by Brazil’s space agency and academics has linked the road to a rise in deforestation, and road improvements allowing easier access deep into the Amazon have consistently led to increased deforestation nearby.
He said that major construction firms that were implicated in corruption schemes remain unable to participate in public auctions for infrastructure projects, but could act as subcontractors for winners of concession auctions.
Engineering conglomerates Odebrecht SA and Andrade Gutierrez SA, both implicated in corruption schemes to fix contracts, signed leniency deals with the government admitting guilt and agreeing to cooperate, which allows them to contest government contracts. Companies linked to corruption but without such leniency deals may be subject to legal challenges.
“They are companies that have know-how, companies with engineering (ability), companies that can provide good services,” Freitas said.