Hazy skies filled with pollutant smoke is something people in the northern belt of India, including Punjab, Haryana, and Chandigarh, have to live with these days.
Where does this haze come from? A farmer stands on the edge of his four-acre piece of land in Punjab's fertile Malwa belt with a complacent look.
Tarsem Singh, like many other farmers, has set the paddy straw or stubble on fire overnight to get rid of the waste residue of the harvested paddy crop. The burnt-out field, which looks completely black with smoke simmering out in a few places, is a dark reminder of how farmers in Punjab and Haryana are playing havoc with the environment and with people's lives, every year, just to save themselves a few days in sowing the next wheat and other crops.
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are to blame for the haze that has covered northern India up to the national capital of New Delhi.
Images released by NASA have shown that farmers have taken to burning the paddy straw heavily even this year, leading to the haze and other environmental and health concerns.
"What can we do? We do not have the time, resources and equipment to remove the residue from the harvested crop. Burning it is the easiest option for us to prepare our fields for the next crop early," Tarsem Singh told IANS, without any sign of remorse for what he was doing.
Like Tarsem Singh, hundreds of other farmers across Punjab are doing the same thing. They have very little to worry about the short and long-term negative fallout of burning the stubble.
In recent years, the Punjab government has warned the farmers, threatened them with prosecution and even offered rewards, but to no avail. The farmers have continued with their bi-annual exercise of burning crop residue.
Haryana's environment department had earlier issued a notification to prohibit the burning of agriculture waste in open fields under the provisions of Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
In recent years, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) has filed cases against farmers found burning their agricultural waste in the open fields.
Earlier this year, the Punjab government, announced an incentive of Rs.1 crore and Rs.100, 000, respectively for each district and village that are free from the burning of crop residues.
"We are putting up more plants for biomass gas to generate power. Hopefully in 2-3 years, when the new projects are in place, the problem of burning will be resolved," Sukhbir Singh Badal, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister, said on 2 November.
"Green Revolution" state Punjab contributes over 50% of foodgrains - wheat and paddy - to the national kitty despite having just 1.54% of the country's geographical area.
The Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA) has estimated that 15 million tonnes of paddy straw is left as residue after the crop is harvested every year. If 50% of this residue is harnessed, it can help generate 100 MW of power.
Agricultural scientists estimate that the burning of every tonne of rice straw leads to the generation of 5.5 kg of nitrogen, 2.3 kg of phosphorus, 25 kg of potassium and 1.2 kg of sulphur. The heat from burning the residue elevates soil temperature, causing the death of beneficial soil organisms like fungi, pests and reptiles that are otherwise useful for the crops.
Other hazards of crop burning include the fire spreading to habitations or forests, accidents caused due to poor visibility due to the smoke and breathing problems for people.