NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite instruments saw a large number of fires across India on March 22. Most of the fires were on grass or crop lands. According to the US space agency, “the location, widespread nature, and number of fires suggest that these fires were deliberately set to manage land”.

That conclusion is corroborated by agricultural practices in the country. The fires are probably a result of jhum cultivation, a technique used by farmers to clear fields after a harvest. The NASA image shows just how many such fires exist on one post-harvest day.

By setting fire to the land, all unwanted plants and shrubs are removed in a quick, easy and cheap manner. Some even say that the fire returns nutrients to the land.

This act, however, is criticised by many because of the large amount of air pollution it creates. Several states in the country have banned the practice. In addition, while it may serve short-term benefits for the farmer, it degrades the soil in the long run. “Burning kills the natural nutrients and bacteria that help rejuvenate the soil and also creates pollution all around. And the law that states have to ban this is not implemented in most areas,” Ashok Gulati, professor of agriculture at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, told The Wire.

Why, in spite of the negative effects, is the burning of fields a prevalent concept on Indian agricultural land? Gulati offers an explanation.  “An agricultural stubble remains on the field after a harvest, and usually you would have to plough the land to remove this. But that costs money. You have to get either machines or labour to do it, and these days labour costs in rural India are very high when compared with agricultural profitability. Burning the field is an easy way out of this problem, at least in the short term. But the farmer will lose out in the medium to long term. It’s a very short sighted cost-benefit analysis that leads to this practice.”

The areas showing fires on NASA’s map also coincide with the Indian agricultural cycle, Gulati says. While the harvest is now complete in parts of south and east India (where the fires largely are), the act of burning fields usually takes place between October and December in the north of the country, when paddy fields are cleared for wheat.

“It’s a governance issue, the negative externalities of burning land need to be seriously taken into account,” he concluded. “Something needs to be done.”

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