Delhi pollution: SC gives Government 24 hours to find a way or make way for court to act

‘As a layman, I am asking you... It has been days since we have been hearing this case, yet pollution continues to remain high,’ says Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana

Updated - December 02, 2021 04:37 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2021 12:47 pm IST - New Delhi:

A boatman scavenges river Yamuna as heavy smog seen over the river indicating the air quality that remains in the very poor zone, in New Delhi, on December 1, 2021

A boatman scavenges river Yamuna as heavy smog seen over the river indicating the air quality that remains in the very poor zone, in New Delhi, on December 1, 2021

Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana on December 2 asked the Government as a ‘layman’ the question that haunts the Capital, that is, why does pollution continue to smother Delhi despite orders from Supreme Court, action from Government and lawyers arguing so much.

The court gave the Government 24 hours to find a way or make way for the Supreme Court to act.

“As a layman, I am asking you... It has been days since we have been hearing this case, yet pollution continues to remain high. Pollution continues to go up despite us passing orders, Government saying it is doing everything and lawyers arguing so much... It is a simple question,” Chief Justice Ramana asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre.

The question came in the middle of yet another inconclusive hearing which ended with the court giving the Government a 24-hour deadline to take “serious action” to beat the smog enveloping the Capital.

The court decided to hear the case at 10 a.m. on December 3 a half hour before usual court timings to underscore the gravity of the issue. The court said it would be forced to pass directions on December 3 if the Government could not decide and act in time to save lives.

Also read: Air pollution: Delhi schools closed till further orders; board exams, online classes to continue

“We are giving you 24 hours. Come with a decision,” Chief Justice Ramana said.

Mr. Mehta said he had a plan and would discuss with the Environment Minister and come back on December 3.

“Some power structure has to be put in place...,” he said.

“We are not here as Opposition leaders. We are here to control pollution,” the CJI emphasised.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, on the Special Bench, asked “but where is the pollution coming from? Which are the identifiable sources of pollution”.

The Solicitor General said it was mostly from industries and vehicles.

“If industries are closed, it cannot be from industries, right?” Justice Chandrachud queried.

The court asked whether there was any check in place to stop polluting vehicles from entering the city.

“Wherever they could be impounded, they have been. Ten thousand vehicles have been diverted from Delhi borders except those carrying essential goods,” Mr. Mehta replied.

The court asked whether there was any check at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh borders.

‘What is Air Quality Commission doing?’

“We are unable to contribute anything towards reducing the pollution... There are numerous members in your Air Quality Commission... More than all the departments of the Government of India... What is the commission doing?” the CJI voiced the court’s exasperation.

“Most directions issued by the commission are only on paper,” Justice Surya Kant said.

“There seems to be no check on the entry of vehicles from the Uttar Pradesh side...” Justice Chandrachud remarked.

Justice Kant said merely collecting fine for violations was not going to stop pollution.

‘Imposing fine is not the answer’

“Making money by imposing fine is not the answer. Construction is continuing. How are we concerned with the crores you collect as fine,” Chief Justice asked.

The CJI said there was no point to creating multiple task forces to find ways of curbing pollution. Mr. Mehta urged the court not to replace the task forces, they were working at “jet speed”.

Justice Chandrachud said the problem was non-implementation of the directions.

‘Lack of creativity’

The CJI said the problem was also a lack of creativity on the part of the bureaucracy to deal with the urgent situation.

“If an emergency is there, you have to act urgently and creatively. If a person has fever, and it is not going down, you have to treat differently... The bureaucracy has to be creative. We cannot induce creativity into your bureaucracy. That is for them to do... Let them act, we will support. What is the point of a 20 or 30-member commission? It is a burden on the public exchequer,” the CJI said.

“Yes, the medicine is not working... Please give me time. Let me speak to the Minister. Let me respond tomorrow,” Mr. Mehta requested.

‘Why have schools opened’

The court asked the Delhi Government why schools had opened in the Capital.

“Children of classes three and four are going to school early in the morning in the smog... While adults have the ‘work from home’ option, little children have to go to school,” Chief Justice Ramana asked.

Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for Delhi, said schools had given the online option.

“If you want, we will close,” Mr. Singhvi said.

“Don’t shoot from our shoulders... Who will want to sit at home, you have given them the option. You take a call now,” the CJI responded.

Mr. Mehta interjected to clarify that the Centre had said that schools would be closed “till further orders”.

Justice Kant said he caught sight of “daily wagers” standing in the middle of the road, some even without masks on, holding placards about pollution.

‘Except slogans, what is there’

“Except popularity slogans, what else is there,” Justice Kant asked.

Mr. Singhvi said these were civil volunteers occupied with the task of creating awareness about pollution. They were helping out in public interest.

“Well, somebody has to take care of their health too...” Justice Kant retorted.

Mr. Singhvi said there was both “will and action” on the part of the Delhi Government.

Justice Kant asked after the purchase of 1,000 new CNG buses. Mr. Singhvi said a total of 8,750 CNG buses were in operation in Delhi. Intensive inspections against polluting sources were on. Vehicles over 10 and 15 years old had been impounded. Around 585 teams had been constituted for dust prevention. However, Mr. Singhvi said completion of work on 21 hospitals, half of which to treat COVID-19 cases, should be allowed.

“Emergency constructions, we will see,” the Bench noted.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh proposed the creation of “proper, empowered flying squads”. He said “development cannot be at the cost of lives”. He objected to an adjournment of the case and sought immediate action.

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