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India tells top utility to mix crop residue with coal to reduce New Delhi smog

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NEW DELHI, Nov 16 (Reuters) - India directed its largest utility NTPC Ltd to blend crop residue with coal at its power plants, in a bid to reduce stubble burning on agricultural lands which is clouding New Delhi with smog.

Rich farmers in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab use mechanized harvesters - which leave more residue than crops plucked by hand - to save money amid rising labor costs.

Subsequent burning of the residue is a major source of smog at this time of year across northern India, including New Delhi, as farmers burn the stubble of the previous crop to prepare for new plantings in November.

Since October, more than 40,000 fires have been recorded in Punjab, as farmers disposed of nearly 20 million tonnes of rice waste, environmental groups said.

Under the government plan, state-run NTPC will buy waste from farmers and use it to make biomass pellets, and fuel at its power plants will be 10 percent biomass and 90 percent coal.

"This step would give the farmers a monetary return of 5500 rupees ($84.27) per tonne of crop residue and hence create a market for it," Power Minister R K Singh said on Thursday.

The government is in talks with all state governments to make this step mandatory for all the thermal power plants in their jurisdiction, Singh said.

The move could limit mass burning over a short period of time, and save Delhi from toxic air during winter.

"Coal plants will have some sort of pollution control as compared to nothing at the farm level," said Chandra Bhushan. deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-government organization.

"In general, use of 10 percent biomass has shown reduction in sulfur oxide emissions," Bhushan said.

NTPC had already issued a tender to procure biomass pellets for a power plant in the state of Uttar Pradesh in August.

Stubble burning is just one of the many causes of toxic air pollution in and around New Delhi, where respiratory diseases kill 10 people per day according to government data.

On Monday, a thick cloud of toxic smog 10 times the recommended limit enveloped New Delhi, as government officials struggled to tackle a public health crisis that is well into its second week.

Thermal power companies alone account for 80 percent of all industrial emissions of particulate matter, sulfur and nitrous oxides in India, and their slowness in complying with new standards to curb pollution shows the difficulties India faces in cleaning up its polluted air.

A combination of industrial pollution, vehicle exhaust and dust envelop the region every year as winter approaches and wind speeds drop, leading to schools getting shut down and employees calling in sick.

($1 = 65.2650 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Susan Fenton)