The Supreme Court chastised the bureaucracy on Wednesday for its “inertia” in waiting for the court to issue directives ranging from “how to halt an automobile to whether to fight a fire by using a bucket or a mop” in order to clean the Capital’s air.
The comment was made by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana, who was leading a Special Bench comprised of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant, during an emergency meeting organised to reduce pollution levels in the National Capital Region (NCR) and nearby districts.
“In the entire country, what I have observed as a judge, and earlier as Advocate General, is that the 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 a fire by using a bucket or a mop… This is the attitude developed by the Executive. The meeting should have decided on the steps and said these are our directions to be implemented. We could have completed this hearing in two minutes… It is unfortunate the Executive has come to this… They just say ‘let the court pass the order and we will sign’,” Chief Justice Ramana observed orally.
On November 15, the court asked the Centre to call an emergency meeting of the CAQM quickly.
The CJI’s remarks came after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta briefed the court about the measures adopted by the CAQM to curb pollution caused by industry, thermal power plants, dust, vehicular transport, including entry of trucks carrying non-essential goods into Delhi. He informed the court that schools and colleges have been closed. Work from home had been encouraged.
Central staff work
The court asked why the Central employees have to come to work.
“You do not need 100% staff, all coming in their cars. You had restricted during COVID-19. Instead of 100 people coming, you can have 50,” the CJI stated.
Mr. Mehta said restricting the attendance at Central offices in Delhi would have “pan-India ramifications”. The contribution to pollution caused by Central government employees attending office would only be minimum. The government was open to car-pooling and arranging public transport for them.
Meteorological Department scientists, who were a part of the emergency meeting, had assured that the “situation would be better after November 21”. He suggested waiting till then before taking “harsh steps” like a complete lockdown in the Capital, he submitted.
“So you are saying, nature will come to the rescue by November 21?”, Justice Kant queried.
Mr. Mehta acknowledged that “something has been done and more needs to be done”.
The CJI said the court would consider the prospect of ordering a complete shutdown after November 21, but asked why the government had not taken steps earlier to rein in industrial activity, construction debris, etc, which spew pollutants 365 days a year, unlike stubble burning, which is only a seasonal occurrence.
The law officer complained of “nasty and irresponsible utterances” made in the media that he had submitted in the last hearing that stubble burning contributed only 10% to the pollution. The government affidavit had clearly pegged the impact of farm fires at 35% to 40% in October and November.
The court said it was not interested in a blame game. Every media organisation has its own statistics. “Debates on TV are creating more pollution… Statements are made out of context. Everybody has their own agenda… We are focussing on a solution here,” the CJI advised course correction in the submissions in court.
Justice Kant said that irrespective of the percentage of contribution, the cardinal question was what the government had done to incentivise farmers to stop stubble burning. “Whether it is 10% or 5%, have you looked at the plight of farmers and what prompts them to resort to stubble burning? Under what circumstances they do that? People sitting in Delhi in five-star and seven-star hotels need to understand…”, he stated.
The CJI said, “We cannot penalise farmers. We have asked the States to persuade the farmers against stubble burning… Farmers do not have the money… Firecrackers also see a spurt after Diwali for 10 to 15 days… Can you say firecrackers is not a contributor to pollution?”
Justice Kant asked, “Every October and November we assemble on this problem of pollution. Every time the court has to take the initiative”.
Justice Chandrachud queried, “Apart from enforcement, what positive steps have you taken that will have an impact on the ground in the next few days”.
The Delhi government said it had done 90% of what the Air Quality Commission has adopted. Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for Delhi, pointed out that the steps recommended by the Commission were “modelled” on Delhi.
Justice Chandrachud asked how many new mechanised road sweepers have been purchased.
Previously, the court found that only 69 sweepers were operational.
Mr. Singhvi said the municipal corporations have asked for 15 and the government had assured financial support.
“Just 15 for thousands of km?”, Justice Chandrachud wondered.
Justice Kant, referring to a measure to ban vehicles above 10 to 15 years from the Delhi roads, asked how long it would take to even identify these vehicles.
“We are talking about immediate measures… Why can’t you insist only on public transport plying for now. Stop private vehicles,” he suggested. He asked who would be responsible for stopping trucks entering Delhi and how.
Peripheral States’ role
The court, however, acknowledged Mr. Singhvi’s submission that Delhi’s measures would be fruitful only if the peripheral States joined in the effort.
But Haryana, in turn, claimed to have, like Delhi, implemented “90%” of the measures, including work from home.
Punjab said it had formed over a 1000 teams to travel to villages and stop farm fires, at times extinguishing them.
“And what happens to the stubble left in the fields. Have you left farmers to the mercy of God,” Justice Kant asked.
The Punjab counsel stressed that it was in the process of purchasing more machines to remove the stubble. The State was working hard to change the “mindset” of farmers. The number of farm fires had considerably lessened.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh observed that the problem of stubble burning was endemic. The problem started in 2016, which saw the highest farm fires, and this year threatened to echo 2016. Farmers should be compelled to switch to stubble removal machines, as burning was not good for them in the long run. “Delhi is gasping,” he pointed out.
The court scheduled the next hearing on November 24.