As morning showers lash Delhi, SC says people can only pray as governments work out schemes to combat pollution

SC says Odd-Even scheme does not help, adds that stubble fires must stop even if somebody has to walk on coal; Delhi government says Odd-Even has led to a 13% reduction in pollution

November 10, 2023 04:50 pm | Updated 06:02 pm IST - NEW DELHI

People move on the Kartavya Path after overnight rain, in New Delhi, on November 10, 2023. Overnight rain led to a rapid improvement in Delhi’s air quality and cleared the haze that had been lingering for over 10 days.

People move on the Kartavya Path after overnight rain, in New Delhi, on November 10, 2023. Overnight rain led to a rapid improvement in Delhi’s air quality and cleared the haze that had been lingering for over 10 days. | Photo Credit: PTI

Giving thanks for the timely rain which washed the smog out of the capital’s skies on Friday, the Supreme Court said that residents are left to pray for mercy even as government schemes to quell air pollution on the basis of reports, theories, and commissions have made little change in the ground situation.

“God may have provided some relief… must have heard our prayers in the morning… We are not looking at anything here but ground-level implementation,” Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, heading a three-judge Bench, observed.

The hearing, which seemed to coincide with the skies opening up, saw the Delhi government insisting on the efficacy of its Odd-Even scheme to control vehicular pollution in the city by reducing congestion on the capital’s roads. It said that the court’s suggestion to ban app-based taxis registered outside Delhi from entering the capital may cause a problem for commuters.

“Do not try to non-perform and shift the burden on the court. People are indeed affected. Odd-Even does not help. It has not proved to help… You are now saying that you will implement the Odd-Even scheme and also impose the scheme on taxis… Did we ask you to implement Odd-Even of taxis? We did not ask you,” Justice Kaul shot back.

The court said that it was left to the government to work out schemes to bring down the pollution, noting that the government could not depend on Supreme Court orders.

“Meanwhile, what the population can do is pray,” Justice Kaul said.

‘Not just optics’

The court confronted the State’s stand that the Odd-Even scheme was not mere “optics” and that it has led to a 13% reduction in pollution.

“But not everybody will have two cars. Odd-Even does not apply to two-wheelers. So, according to your scheme, a person should have two cars, one numbered odd and other even, or a car and a two-wheeler. That’s your scheme. You do what you want,” Justice Kaul told the State government.

Turning to the Centre and the Punjab governments, the court said that stubble fires have to be stopped even if “somebody has to walk on coal” for that.

Painful consequences

Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah said that the court could pass an order for officials to “work in the open without masks” to experience for themselves the real extent of the health problems created by stubble-burning.

He even suggested “attaching the property” of the people who start fires despite warnings from the authorities. Justice Kaul, however, said that farmers too were part of society, responsible for its welfare. There was no point registering first information reports (FIRs) against violators, for they would be withdrawn eventually, he added.

The court asked the Centre, represented by Attorney General R. Venkataramani, about its suggestion to slowly phase out paddy from Punjab as a long-term measure to save its dipping water table and stop fires. Mr. Venkataramani said that such a step would affect the entire country and could not be considered in isolation.

“We are not saying rice should be closed one fine day. We had suggested it as a long term measure,” Justice Kaul responded. He added that nobody would be willing to switch over from paddy to another crop unless there were incentives offered. “They are also worried about their two bits,” he said.

Phasing out paddy

“You have to act. What will you do if somebody sets fire to stubble despite your norms and machinery… We are only flagging the issues. We are not calling for the demolition of Minimum Support Price for paddy. We want to know what you are doing for the slow phasing out of paddy from Punjab,” Justice Kaul observed.

Punjab Advocate General Gurminder Singh said that the State was taking up the issue of stubble-burning on a “war front”. Police patrols and fire men were patrolling the State, extinguishing farm blazes. “We have reduced farm fires by one-third. Thousands of fires have been extinguished,” he said.

While the Centre and Punjab governments assured the court that they would “fully endeavour” to take steps to ameliorate the situation, the court warned that it could even ask the secretaries concerned to come over and “keep them here till they find a solution”.

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