Smog chokes Capital: Supreme Court pulls up Delhi govt, Centre, NCR states

In a hearing on Monday, a bench, headed by CJI NV Ramana, gave the Centre and state governments of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and UP 24 hours to hold a meeting and prepare a list of urgent steps that can be taken to bring down pollution
Commuters make their way along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Monday. (AFP)
Commuters make their way along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Monday. (AFP)
Published on Nov 15, 2021 01:43 PM IST
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The Supreme Court on Monday lamented that it was being “forced to set the agenda” on the pollution crisis in the National Capital Region (NCR) as it pulled up the Delhi government for “passing the buck”, the Centre for not proposing “drastic measures”, and NCR states for not doing enough to control what has become an annual public health crisis.

In a hearing on Monday, a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, gave the Centre and state governments of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh 24 hours to hold an emergency meeting and prepare a list of urgent steps that can be put in place immediately to bring down the levels of pollution in the “forseeable future”.

The bench, which also included justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant, listed out the areas of concern, including work-from-home for all offices in Delhi, and dissuading farmers from burning stubble for two weeks in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Also Read: Delhi’s AQI improves marginally, still in ‘very poor’ category

The focus of the court, however, was clearly on emergency mitigation to control local sources of pollution, asking the Centre and the states to focus on curtailing activities such as construction, traffic, industries, and power plants.

The court said it wanted a report by Wednesday morning, and would pass appropriate directives based on the submissions.

“It is very unfortunate we have to set an agenda for the governments. When we heard this matter on Friday, we thought you will conduct a meeting and come up with something concrete. But nothing is there... tell us about the drastic steps that you must take to bring down the levels of pollution in the next two-three days,” the bench told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Centre.

The court’s directions come at the time when pollution in the region has oscillated between “severe” and “very poor” - hazardous levels on the Air Quality Index (AQI) scale - as they do every year in the first few weeks of November, and none of the measures put in place by administrations at various levels seem to have worked.

FARM FIRES

When the hearing commenced on Monday, senior counsel Vikas Singh, appearing for the 17-year-old petitioner Aditya Dubey, blamed politics for not taking action against farmers even though stubble burning has been a major contributor to air pollution in the pre-winter weeks. He said that because Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will hold assembly polls next year, no steps are being taken.

“We don’t want any politics. We only want pollution to come down. We are not concerned with election or politics. Let us see how pollution can be brought down,” retorted the bench.

On his part, the SG read out from the affidavits filed by the Union government regarding the steps taken by various authorities, and conceded that stubble burning is not a chief contributor to the worsening air quality. He said that farm fires contributed a meagre 10% to the bad air a day ago and they are problematic only during the two months in the pre-winter and winter weeks.

“Are you agreeing in principle that farm fires are not a chief reason for rise in pollution? So, all the hue and cry over farm fires actually had no legal, scientific or rational basis... your own affidavit shows that stubble burning contributes only 4% annually. So, we are trying to target something which is an insignificant source of pollution,” said the bench.

It pointed out that the Centre’s own submissions showed that 75% of the pollution is due to three factors - industries, road dust, and vehicles.

“If we have to reduce the pollution drastically, you will have to focus on these three factors to see the effect in the next few days. So, you have to tell us what the steps are that you plan to take immediately. Why don’t you stop plying of vehicles in Delhi for two days? This is a decision you have to take,” said the bench.

LOCKDOWN IN DELHI

Mehta responded that certain drastic measures in contemplation included imposing a lockdown in the Capital, besides completely stopping the entry of trucks in Delhi. However, the SG added, experts have advised that these steps could wait.

Senior counsel Rahul Mehra, representing the Delhi government, said that the city government was willing to impose a lockdown, but this will have to be implemented through the NCR, including the cities in Delhi’s adjoining states of UP and Haryana.

“We are only concerned about bringing down the pollution levels. You need to decide what steps are to be taken,” replied the court.

The Delhi government was also reproached by the bench when he could not give out details of the road-cleaning machines that were deployed in the national capital. Instead, Mehra submitted that BJP-headed municipal corporations should apprise the court of these details.

“You are only passing the buck. Your lame excuses will force us to hold an audit of revenue you are earning and spending on popularity slogans. People are suffering and you are not bothered,” the bench told Mehra.

Mehra said that the city government is willing to take all possible steps and would also release more funds for the machines immediately.

The court then adjourned the hearing to Wednesday, asking the Centre and the states to enumerate the steps to be taken immediately.

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Monday, November 29, 2021