Delhi air pollution: ‘Urban factors, not farm fires, cause of pollution’

Cat is out of the bag, says SC; farm fires in Punjab, Haryana and U.P. contributed to only 10% of the pollution, says Centre

November 15, 2021 12:56 pm | Updated 11:18 pm IST - New Delhi

The air quality of NCR and Delhi's is very poor, this here is scene at Noida on November 11, 2021.

The air quality of NCR and Delhi's is very poor, this here is scene at Noida on November 11, 2021.

The Supreme Court on Monday said the “cat is out of the bag” to prove that urban factors such as construction activities, industry, vehicular exhaust and road dust were actually the major causes of pollution in the Capital and not farmers’ stubble burning.

A special Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana gleaned the fact from the affidavits filed by the Centre and the Delhi Government. The Centre, for one, stated that farm fires in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh contributed only 10% of the pollution.

In the previous hearing, the court had questioned the narrow focus of the Centre and the Delhi Government on farmers.

“You say 76% of the pollution is caused by industry, dust, vehicles and construction and not due to stubble burning... So the cat is out of the bag... So, you are now trying to target pollution that is insignificant?” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, on the Bench, asked both Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and senior advocate Rahul Mehra, appearing for the Centre and Delhi, respectively.

“Are you agreeing in principle that farm fires are not the major cause? So all that hue and cry had no scientific or actual basis?” Justice Surya Kant queried.

Chief Justice Ramana noted that the court had been insisting that stubble burning was not the major cause. “Pollution is caused by city-related issues... You first take care of them and then we will come to stubble burning,” he observed, nudging the Centre, Delhi and States towards a firm commitment to act against pollution.

Mechanised road sweepers

The court was shocked to realise that Delhi had only 69 mechanised road sweepers to cover the entire streets of the Capital.

Mr. Mehra was quick to assure “commitment at the top”. He said the municipal corporations in Delhi were autonomous bodies and suggested the court should ask the Mayors to file “specific” affidavits.

“This is like the story told by grandma... Everyone is passing the buck,” Chief Justice Ramana scoffed.

Justice Kant lashed out at the Delhi Government for coming up with “lame excuses”. He said if this went on, the court would be constrained to order an audit inquiry into the money the government spent on “popularity slogans” seen across the Capital.

Justice Chandrachud asked, “How will you augment the number of machines in the next 24 hours”.

Justice Kant stated, “Municipal corporations say they don’t even have the money to pay their staff”.

Mr. Mehra, after conferring with officials, said, “MCD can say how many they require, the government will release the funds. We are committed... We will do on a war footing.”

“Tall words...” the CJI reacted at one point.

The Delhi counsel persisted that the government had been doing everything the Union of India had asked to quell the pollution.

Mr. Mehra said, “Everything that needs to be done further, will be done in 24 to 48 hours”.

Chief Justice Ramana told the Delhi Government, “We appreciate whatever steps you have taken... We are not saying you have not cooperated... You take steps... Do it... People will appreciate if you do”.

During the hearing, the court found that the Centre’s Committee under the Air Quality Management in NCT and in Adjoining Areas Act had not, over the weekend, “precisely” chalked out a plan to immediately and drastically control pollution caused by construction, vehicles, power plants and industry.

Complete lockdown

In fact, Mr. Mehta said “drastic steps” like odd-even vehicles’ scheme, ban on entry and plying of trucks in the Capital, complete lockdown had been “deferred” for now. “The severest step would be lockdown.”

But Delhi said it was willing to go for a lockdown, provided it was “cohesive arrangement” involving the National Capital Region (NCR).

“We are wanting to have a lockdown if it is also in NCR...” Mr. Mehra submitted.

The court directed the Centre to call an urgent meeting in 24 hours with Punjab, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to craft urgent and effective anti-pollution measures and their implementation.

Though noting that stubble burning was not broadly a significant contributor to pollution except in October and November, the court asked Punjab, Haryana to “persuade” farmers not to resort to stubble burning for a week.

“You file documents after documents... You don’t focus on the issue... You have to come up with a concrete proposal,” Chief Justice Ramana addressed the Punjab counsel.

The court asked the Centre, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to introduce work from home for now.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, for the petitioners, said the Centre had made a “wrong statement in court today on stubble burning as their high-powered meeting last night has recorded that stubble burning even now is responsible for 35-40% Delhi air pollution”.

He said construction needed to be regulated rather than banned.

The court scheduled the next hearing for November 17.

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