Air pollution: SC directs Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan to stop stubble burning

The Asian Age.  | Sanjay Kaw and Avinash Prabhakar

India, All India

The court also directed the Delhi government to ensure that municipal solid waste was not burnt in the open

A thick smog blankets the capital city of Delhi, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Air pollution level is Delhi-NCR has started rising owing much to stubble (parali) burning in adjoining states. (PTI0

New Delhi: As Delhi-NCR is battling severe air pollution, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan governments to ensure that the crop residue burning was stopped “forthwith”, saying it cannot let “people die” due to air pollution.

“I am sorry, this is complete murder of the health of people, there is no other phrase I have,” said Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who headed the bench which also comprised Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia.

The apex court’s observations came a day after the Delhi government announced its decision to implement “odd-even” traffic restriction plan from November 13, a day after Diwali, when pollution levels are likely to shoot up even further. The Supreme Court also questioned the effectiveness of the odd-even scheme and termed it “all optics” It asked the counsel for the Delhi government whether the scheme had succeeded when it had been implemented earlier. “These are all optics, this is the problem,” the bench observed.

Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai, however, made it clear that the city government will incorporate the apex court’s directions on pollution in finalising details of the odd-even scheme. The minister also held a meeting with senior officers of the transport and environment departments and the traffic police to discuss the modalities of the odd-even scheme. “The government will now study the SC order and include its suggestions and directions to plan further,” he added.

Reminding the Punjab government that the fight against stubble burning  cannot be political, the top court asked it and other neighbouring states to take urgent steps to stop the fires which it said is a “substantial” contributor to air pollution in Delhi. The apex court put the onus of stopping the fires on the respective station house officers under the overall supervision of the chief secretary.

The apex court said: “The residents of Delhi have been struggling with health issues because they don’t seem to find a solution year after year to the aggravated problem of pollution at this time of the year. That part of the year passes, and it goes on to the next year. This has been an ongoing process for five years. It is time that something is done as of yesterday rather than postpone it…”

The top court also directed the Delhi government to ensure that municipal solid waste was not burnt in the open and posted the matter for further hearing on Friday.

While hearing a matter pertaining to the debilitating air pollution in Delhi-NCR, the Supreme Court flagged issues like crop residue burning, vehicular pollution and burning of waste in the open. The top court is seized of a plea filed in 1985 by environmentalist M.C. Mehta on air pollution and the issue of crop residue burning cropped up during the hearing of the PIL.

The counsel appearing for Punjab claimed that incidents of crop residue burning have come down by 40 per cent since last year. “We want to stop all this. We don't care how you do it. It is your business how to do it. It must stop,” the bench told the counsel, adding: “You have to stop it, whether by forceful action, sometimes by incentives, sometimes by other actions, but you have to stop it.”

Reacting to the court’s directive, BJP spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said: “After the complete expose of the Aam Aadmi Party by the Supreme Court on Delhi’s air pollution and Punjab stubble issue, Arvind Kejriwal should apologise for making Delhi a gas chamber and stealing our right to breathe fresh air over the last eight years.” All that Mr Kejriwal did was to “blame others, including Diwali” for the rise in pollution levels in Delhi, he charged in a post on X.

“This is like a slap on Arvind Kejriwal’s face,” BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya wrote on X, commenting on the court’s directive to the Delhi government. He hoped Mr Kejriwal would now stop blaming “everyone under the sun, except his own governments in Punjab and Delhi”.

With the Supreme Court taking a stern view of the pollution situation, former environment minister and senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said both the Centre and the states have been complicit in their “inaction”. He said: “The Supreme Court has had very strong words to say about the dangerous levels of air pollution in the nation's capital. But it is a crisis that affects entire North India. Both the Centre and the states have been complicit in their inaction.”

Pollution levels in Delhi marginally dipped Tuesday morning and were recorded in the “very poor” category after five consecutive days of severe air quality. The national capital's Air Quality Index (AQI) stood at 394, a marginal improvement from the 421 recorded on Monday.

Despite the marginal dip, the concentration of PM2.5 -- fine particulate matter capable of penetrating deep into the respiratory system and triggering health problems -- exceeded the government-prescribed safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metre by seven to eight times in the capital. It was 30 to 40 times the healthy limit of 15 micrograms per cubic metre set by the World Health Organisation.

Several cities in neighbouring Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have also reported hazardous air quality. Ghaziabad recorded an AQI of 338, Gurgaon 364, Noida 348, Greater Noida 439 and Faridabad 382.

Noting that air pollution persists in the national capital despite several remedial steps having been taken by the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), the Supreme Court had on October 31 directed Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan governments to file affidavits listing the measures initiated by them to control it.

Observing that until a couple of decades ago this was the best time in Delhi, the court had said the city was now marred by worsening air quality and it was difficult to even step outside the house. The top court had earlier sought a report from the CAQM on steps being taken to control air pollution in and around Delhi. The CAQM is an autonomous body tasked with improving the air quality in Delhi and adjoining areas.