Delhi-NCR’s Airpocalypse: Dissatisfied Supreme Court pulls up officials, seeks action

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November 18, 2021 5:45 AM

While the apex court suggested an increase in CNG buses, the Delhi government claimed that new buses can't be added overnight without a tendering process.

poor air quality, air pollution, air pollution in NCR, air pollution in India, pollution in India,The Centre had earlier called a meeting of the NCR states to decide on the action plan, after a stern directive was issued by the apex court.

Unhappy with the steps taken by the Centre and the state governments of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab to improve air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR), the Supreme Court on Wednesday pulled up their officials and said “bureaucracy has developed an inertia,” leading to “a policy paralysis.” It, however, observed that it doesn’t want to penalise farmers for stubble burning, one of the reasons for the toxic air, “as a majority of them have such small landholdings and can’t afford stubble cutting machines”.

A bench comprising Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant said it expected the authorities to do much more than seeking directions like work-from-home, carpooling, and use of sprinklers to tackle the air pollution. “… bureaucracy has developed an inertia, an apathy… They wait for the court to pass an order even on things like how to stop a car or put out a fire by using a bucket or a mop. We have to do everything… This is the attitude developed by the Executive,” the court lamented.

The Centre had earlier called a meeting of the NCR states to decide on the action plan, after a stern directive was issued by the apex court. “When Delhi is completely choked, this court is forced to step in. Tell us what has Centre and the states been doing in the remaining parts of the year? … it has become a yearly phenomenon,” the Chief Justice told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Justice Surya Kant, who during the earlier hearing insisted on grant of incentives to the farmers and the need to find alternatives to stubble burning, reiterated that “irrespective of figures in affidavits, we have to consider the plight of the farmers…what compels him to burn the stubble?” The SC’s remarks came after senior counsel AM Singhvi, appearing for the Delhi government, told it that the stubble burning was a major contributor to the air pollution during the winters. The apex court then deferred the hearing till November 24 after the Centre and governments of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab assured it that efforts are being done to tackle the situation.

Mehta informed the judges that the Meteorological department scientists, who were a part of the emergency meeting, had assured that the “situation would be better after November 21”. He suggested the court may wait till then before taking “harsh steps” like a complete lockdown in the Capital.

Questioning Centre’s affidavit which claimed that stubble burning contributes around 35% to 40% of air pollution, the Delhi government through senior counsel AM Singhvi pointed to a SAFAR study that pegged stubble burning’s contribution between 0% to 58% around the year, which may imply nil in March and up to 58% in October. It also emphasised that an odd-even vehicle scheme in the city won’t be able to curb air pollution if it’s not extended to cities in the NCR, as the state borders are porous and vehicular movement is frequent.

While the apex court suggested an increase in CNG buses, the Delhi government claimed that new buses can’t be added overnight without a tendering process. The Bench agreed with senior counsel Vikas Singh, who appeared for petitioner Aditya Dubey, that the rules are already there to control emissions from power plants, dust and other pollutants from industrial and construction activities, BS-VI norms for vehicles, but there is no oversight and implementation. Urging the top court to take concrete action to avert a similar situation next year, Singh submitted that change in government mandated rules in the past decade reduced the sowing time between the Rabi and Kharif crops, which forced farmers to leave their traditional ways and go for either stubble burning or using costly machines.

Stressing that it was in the process of purchasing more machines to remove the stubble, the counsel for Punjab government stated that more than 76,000 machines to decompose stubble have been provided to farmers in last three years, as a result of which number of total fires have gradually declined. More funds are required to buy these machines as they are funded 80% by the Centre and balance 20% is borne by the Panchayats, he added. The Haryana government too submitted that it was adhering to all the existing guidelines on air quality including work-from-home measures for employees.

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