Yet another chapter in the annual Delhi air quality crisis played out in the Supreme Court Friday with the court, once again, demanding the centre and state governments, including the Punjab administration, work together to stop farm fires and resolve Delhi’s annual air quality crisis.
“We want farm fires stopped… we want better air quality… how is your business,” the court said, swatting away objections and explanations about the impact of stubble burning by Punjab farmers – whom the court pointed out were not represented in this argument – and Delhi’s odd-even scheme.
“Every year weather changes in this time… but you haven’t been able to solve this in six years?” Justice SK Kaul said as he began a discussion that included the efficacy of the AAP’s odd-even scheme. “Ultimately, little bit of carrot, little stick. Do what you have to do, but get levels down.”
Also, this afternoon’s hearing was held after Delhi woke to overnight rains that (ever so slightly) cleared the toxic smog blanket choking the national capital; the change was small – from nearly 500 last night to 407 this morning – but it was significant and had nothing to do with the government, the court said.
“God heard peoples’ prayers and intervened… sometimes wind helps. But no thanks to government. (All) we want to know is… what is being done about farm fires, apart from waiting for rain?”
Today’s exchanges revolved around two major points – the share of farm fires in Punjab to the toxic smog choking northern India, and the impact of the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme, which is announced with fanfare every year as part of the ruling AAP’s pollution-fighting measures.
Earlier this week the court called the odd-even scheme “optics” and asked for proof of its success.
On this, the court was referred to a report that said it reduces vehicular pollution by 13 per cent. The court pointed out pollution from vehicles is only an estimated 17 per cent of the larger problem.
Of significance is the fact only private four-wheelers are subject to such regulation; two-wheelers and taxis are exempt, and, as of 2021, there are over 8.2 million registered in the national capital.
“Total vehicular pollution is 17 per cent. Of this… you are saying there is a decline of 13 per cent?” the court asked, before shrugging its shoulder and saying, “We are only flagging it. You take a call… you want to do it, then you can. Can’t then say ‘pollution because Supreme Court passed an order’.”
Shortly afterwards, Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai said the scheme would not be introduced.
On farm fires, the court again pressed for a discussion on steps to solve the crisis. “We don’t want to get into what the reports are… we want to know what steps you are taking for a long-term solution.”
On this, the talk was largely about measures – like fines – to discourage farmers from burning stubble and the cultivation of strains of paddy that are water-intensive, thereby also draining Punjab’s water.
“We suggested a methodology, you do it however you want. But farm fires must be stopped…”
There has been some progress on this front; on Thursday, Punjab recorded only 639 farm fires.
On Wednesday the state reported over 2,000 farm fires..
The court also acknowledged the not-so-hidden “political issue” – that farmers are a politically sensitive constituency and that governments, centre and state, are wary of provoking them. “If the farmers, despite fines, do not use machines… what are you going to do?” the court asked.
Ultimately, the court said the burning of crop residue in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan remains a key factor for the spike in Delhi’s air pollution every winter, and that this had to be addressed.
To that end, the court pointed out farmers were not represented in today’s hearing. “There is every voice here but the farmers…” the court said, “Farmers in Punjab are well-organised. Sit with them…”
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