Schools stay shut, but pollution panel may rethink building ban

Taking up a public interest litigation (PIL) on air quality measures in the Capital, a bench, headed by chief justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, eased its November 24 order that revived the ban on construction activities.
Clear sky seen during sun set at Firozeshah road , in New Delhi, India, on Friday. (Photo by Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times)
Clear sky seen during sun set at Firozeshah road , in New Delhi, India, on Friday. (Photo by Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times)
Published on Dec 11, 2021 03:41 AM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Schools and educational institutions in Delhi-NCR continue to remain shut as the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) is still to review its closure order issued earlier this month. The ban on construction activity, however, is set to be revisited with the Supreme Court on Friday permitting CAQM to consider requests for relaxing the construction ban in the wake of improvement in air quality.

Taking up a public interest litigation (PIL) on air quality measures in the Capital, a bench, headed by chief justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, eased its November 24 order that revived the ban on construction activities. It asked the commission to examine the pleas made by various builders and their representative bodies for resuming their work.

“We are all in Delhi. We know the condition. It has just started improving. They (CAQM) can relax the conditions slowly,” observed the bench, which also comprised justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Surya Kant.

The court was dealing with a bunch of applications pleading for a relaxation on the construction ban, but it declined to entertain the individual applications.

“All the governments -- Centre or states, should have taken strict steps before our shouting. We never had to pass these orders. Now, if we are going to be involved in each and everything, this will never end,” remarked the bench, holding that all applications will be examined by CAQM.

“We expect that the commission will look into these issues within a week,” added the court, as a clutch of senior lawyers appearing for builders and their representative bodies such as Developers and Builders Forum pressed for an expeditious review by the Commission. The court further said that CAQM may hear some of them before passing final orders, if required.

The court, which had on December 3 lamented that it was sought to be portrayed as a “villain” for trying to get schools shut although it did not pass any such order, did not seek any update on reopening of schools in Delhi-NCR during the Friday hearing, nor did CAQM made any submission on this aspect.

Schools in Delhi have been shut four separate times since March last year – twice owing to concerns over Covid-19, and twice in less than three weeks because of the pollution. Experts have, however, repeatedly pointed that the pollution levels are as bad indoors as they are outside, if not worse. Further, they have also flagged concerns over the mental health impact and learning gaps that the repeated interruptions have caused.

The affidavit filed in the top court by CAQM cited orders issued on December 8 and 9 related to running of industrial units but it remained silent on reopening of schools even as some experts underscore concerns over learning loss due to prolonged school closure while not preventing the air crisis that young people face.

“There is no fresh order by the Commission after its December 2 order which directed that all schools, colleges and educational institutions in NCR shall remain closed, allowing only online mode of education, except for the purposes of conducting examinations or practical. This technically means that there is no change in the closure order and the December 2 direction is very much in force till it is reviewed in future,” said an official, associated with the CAQM, who did not wish to be named.

Air pollution levels in the national capital have improved marginally over the past week, owing primarily to stronger winds, after spiking severely earlier this month. The air quality index (AQI) improved to the ‘poor’ zone, and falling to its lowest since October 27 this year.

Pollution levels did, however, worsen to the ‘very poor’ zone on December 10.

After the Delhi government on December 2 closed all schools in the city due to high pollution levels, CAQM, by its order passed the same day, expanded the closure order to all of NCR. These orders came within hours of the top court pulling up the Delhi government for reopening schools on November 29, asking if it was prudent to expose young children to bad air and toxic smog while adults were still working from home.

“Children have to go to schools at 6-7 in the morning in this bad weather...You have implemented work for home for the employees. So, parents work from home and children have to go to schools. What’s this?” it asked.

But on December 3, the bench stressed that it did not give any direction to the effect, nor did it suggest that the Delhi government must shut schools; all it did on December 2 was to ask the Delhi government for reasons behind reopening them even as pollution levels were high.

Meanwhile, CAQM’s affidavit further informed the court that the expert group set up by the Commission is in the process of finalising an air quality forecast model in terms of the air quality index, using WRF-Chem Forecasting model. WRF-Chem is the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model coupled with Chemistry.

“The model is envisaged to provide a 7-day forecast and outlook for subsequent 3 days (i.e., total 10-days) based on predominant surface wind direction, wind speed, mixing layer height, ventilation index etc. The system would also be able to predict 7-day air mass inflow and outflow of Delhi which would in turn help in planning suitable actions that can be taken in advance to curtail any adverse air quality scenario,” stated the affidavit.

It added that a new statistical model trained on past air quality and meteorological data is also under development by the expert committee for forecasting the air quality for next few days, besides reviewing the various measures that have been proposed under the graded response action plan (Grap).

On November 24, the apex court said that controlling pollution in the national capital should not be left to “an act of God”, directing the Union government to instead devise a scientific model, based on seasons and wind conditions, for taking all remedial and urgent steps in anticipation of the air quality.

“There has to be a statistical model for Delhi. This is the national capital. Imagine the kind of signals we are sending to the world. You have to have a system in anticipation of how the weather is going to be. Ad hoc measures will not be good enough,” said the bench, prompting CAQM to constitute the expert committee to comply with the court orders.

CAQM’s latest affidavit has also given details of coercive measures taken by its enforcement task force and the flying squads. Between December 4 and 7, a total of 1,534 sites were inspected by the flying squads and a total of 228 sites were issued notices of closure, the affidavit said.

Dr Jugal Kishore, head of the department of community medicine at Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital, said the continued closure of schools due to the pollution was hampering the welfare of children.

“School plays a key role in the growth and development of children, particularly younger children. Interaction of children with other children is also significant for the overall development of a child. When air pollution is an annual feature, we should direct efforts towards combating it instead of closing down schools. Closure of schools is not a solution to the pollution problem,” he said.

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