India dispatches: Supreme Court pushes Indian governments to take urgent action on Delhi pollution crisis
© JURIST (Neelabh Bist)
India dispatches: Supreme Court pushes Indian governments to take urgent action on Delhi pollution crisis

India Staff Correspondent Sambhav Sharma reports on Monday’s proceedings in the Supreme Court of India on government efforts to control the latest severe bout of air pollution in the country’s National Capital Region. He files this for JURIST from New Delhi.

The Special Bench of Hon’ble Chief Justice of India Justice N.V. Ramana, Hon’ble Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Hon’ble Justice Surya Kant reconvened Monday to hear the matter concerning deteriorating air quality in India, especially in the national capital of Delhi.

On Saturday, the bench had asked the government to apprise them about the emergency steps taken to curb the pollution surge. Today, it continued its questioning and asked the Delhi Government about the possible solutions they had devised over the weekend. Justice Chandrachud inquired as to the steps which the Delhi Government can take to augment the number of available Mechanical Road Sweeper Machines that help with reducing dirt and smoke residue on roads. He further inquired whether the government can take any steps to ensure that there is a relief in the foreseeable procedure.

Mr. Rahul Mehra, Senior Counsel appearing for the Government of Delhi, sought a brief moment to seek instructions. Before departing for the same, Mr. Rahul Mehra generally began to elaborate on the steps that can be taken, and stated that the Municipal Corporations may be asked to file an affidavit detailing the actions taken. To this, Justice Surya Kant commented that these kind of lame excuses will compel the Court to issue an audit of the revenue earned by the government of Delhi and further “look into issues” in detail.

Justice Chandrachud quickly reiterated his question and sought immediate information on the number of Mechanical Road Sweeper Machines the Government of Delhi can augment within the next 24 hours. While Mr. Rahul Mehra left to seek instructions, the court called upon the Counsel for the State of Haryana, one of the states where stubble burning by farmers is most prevalent. The court, dissatisfied by the response of the government, commented “it is very unfortunate that no decision has been taken”.

Subsequently, Mr. Rahul Mehra returned with instructions and stated that 69 Mechanical Road Sweeper Machines are currently available, and once Municipal Corporations inform the government of the requirements, they will immediately release funds, stressing that action will be taken at war footing. He further added that as for the present measures taken, inter alia, all construction is banned in Delhi till 17th November and all schools have been shut. Further, he expressed that the Delhi Government has strong intentions to impose a lockdown in the national Capital Territory of Delhi, and sought permission from the Central Government to apply it to entire NCR.

In response, the Hon’ble Chief Justice suggested that the end goal is for the pollution to be reduced; what steps are to be taken is the prerogative of the concerned Government.

After listening to the parties, the court listed out the core issues to be addressed, being construction projects, industry, transport, power, stubble burning, and the possibility of working from home in the National Capital.

Mr. Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India representing the Central Government in Court, was asked to determine an action plan by tomorrow evening, regarding the planning for construction of essential projects, transportation vis-à-vis non-essential vehicles, power projects currently in operation. The Court further added that since most of the government employees in the National Capital Territory of Delhi are Union Government employees (Delhi being a Union Territory), the Central Government has the authority and capability to decide the possibility of working from home for the employees. Mr. Tushar Mehta was asked to take a call and come back tomorrow.

As on the issue of stubble burning, the Court came down heavily on the Governments of the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the three agrarian states in North India. They were asked to pursue the farmers to hold the burning of stubble for one week, till the situation improves.

Justice Surya Kant specifically questioned the Counsel appearing for the Government of Punjab on its affidavit being silent on incentives given to farmers, while the government is penalizing them for stubble burning. The Court further expressed its disappointment by stating that all that is done is filing of “documents upon documents”, yet no tangible action is ever taken to solve the crisis. The Court asserted that the governments must come with a complete proposal before the next hearing, or else they won’t be in a position to question the consequent directions issued by the court in the absence of such proposal.

Concluding the hearing for the day, the Court directed the Government of India to examine and introduce work from home for all employees and list the matter for tomorrow, 16th November, 2021.

As someone witnessing the proceedings in court today, seeing the Supreme Court reprimand the governments for their inaction on the pollution problem was very welcome. Time in and time out we have seen Indian citizens suffer because of the passivity of executive bodies. It is despicable that after years of complaints from citizens to tackle the perpetual problem of pollution, all that is received in return are false promises and tall claims. Hopefully, after today’s proceedings, the respective governments will pull up their socks and make an action plan for the recurring crisis. What remains to be seen is whether cogent solutions are brought before the Court in the next hearing or if we are in for another round of evasive arguments.