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'Little Constructive Effort Made': SC Hauls up Centre Over Delhi's Pollution Problem

Hearing another petition alleging that the odd-even scheme was nothing more than a political stunt, the Supreme Court asked the Delhi government and the CPCB to provide it with relevant data.

New Delhi: On a day when air quality in Delhi once again deteriorated to reach ‘severe plus’ or ’emergency’ levels, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the Centre for failing to find a solution to this problem.

Wednesday was the third time within the first half of November that the Supreme Court heard the matter. Expressing dissatisfaction with the way the air quality has deteriorated yet again, a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Chief Justice-designate S.A. Bobde said: “In our view, little constructive effort has been made by the government and other stakeholders to find a solution to the problem.”

The bench also pulled the Centre up for not doing enough, saying that “the whole of north India, NCR is suffering from the issue of air pollution.”

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who spoke on behalf of the Centre submitted that the government was exploring various technologies, including a Japanese hydrogen-based one. Following this submission, the apex court directed the Centre to explore this option for reducing air pollution and submit a report to it in the matter by December 3.

Delhi, NCR pollution again nears ‘emergency’ level

Meanwhile, the city’s air quality continued to deteriorate for the third straight day. The Air Quality Index reached 494 in the city this morning, just a few points shy of the 500 mark that denotes ‘very severe’ or ‘emergency’ levels. Later in the day, it breached the 500 mark as well.

Screengrab of the live AQI portal www.aqicn.org at 5:30 pm on November 13.

While an AQI between 0-50 is considered ‘good’, 51-100 is ‘satisfactory’, 101-200 ‘moderate’, 201-300 ‘poor’, 301-400 ‘very poor’, 401-500 ‘severe’ and 500 plus, ‘severe plus’.

In fact, a variety of reasons, the primary being stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab, have contributed to the high pollution in the area. With temperature dipping to around 14°C in the morning and humidity over the 70% mark, the entire region remained enveloped in smoke through the day.

This reflected in the air quality in all satellite townships too with Noida recording an AQI of 472, Greater Noida 462, Faridabad 441 and Gurugram 448, respectively.

People ‘losing precious years’

Earlier, too, a bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta had hauled up the Centre and the Delhi government for not doing enough to curb air pollution. Remarking that “right to life is most important” and that people were “losing precious years” of their life due to pollution, the bench had also directed the Centre and state governments to immediately stop stubble burning.

Meanwhile, while hearing another petition in which it was alleged that the odd-even vehicle rationing scheme, currently on in Delhi, was nothing more than a political stunt, the Supreme Court has asked the Delhi government and the Central Pollution Control Board to provide it with data on AQI for October 1 to 14 this year and for October 1 to December 31 last year.

Vehicles ply on Rajpath as Rashtrapathi Bhawan is visibly shrouded in smog on the background, in New Delhi, on November 13, 2019. Photo: PTI

Do not oppose odd-even, help industries utilise straw: Kejriwal

Responding to the developments, Delhi chief minister urged the opposition to not oppose the odd-even scheme, saying it was what Delhi wanted.

Kejriwal also said that he has spoken to several experts and entrepreneurs and they told him that paddy straw was already being used by some industrial units, thus indicating that buyers of paddy straw were readily available. He, therefore, appealed to all the governments to assist the industries in this matter.

Stubble burning peaks in Punjab, Haryana

Straw burning has reached alarming proportions in Punjab, where till November 10, 48,155 incidents had been recorded by the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre (PRSC). As a result, the air quality in Delhi NCR had started deteriorating from Sunday.

A traffic policeman wearing an anti-pollution mask stands next to a digital board displaying Air Quality Index on the compound wall of a weather observatory, at Lodhi Road in New Delhi, Wednesday, on November 13, 2019. Photo: PTI

Incidentally, the number of reported cases of stubble burning in Punjab this year have crossed the 2018 tally. Although Haryana too has seen significant stubble burning this year, in real terms the state’s impact on overall air pollution in the region has been lower since paddy is grown in only seven of its districts as against the 22 districts of Punjab.

Too few machines 

Since farmers resort to stubble burning because they are left with little time between paddy harvesting and the sowing of wheat, governments have been promoting the use of various machines  such as happy seeders, paddy straw choppers, super straw management systems and rotavators to help them bury or use the straw instead of burning it. But while about 60,000 such machines have been distributed in Punjab over the last two years, their use has remained negligible.

In Haryana too, while such straw management systems were supplied to 99.6% of the custom hiring centres, which are responsible for letting them out to the farmers, only about 33% of them were actually supplied to the farmers. In Punjab, where about 30.7% CHCs received the machines, only about 34% of these were actually lent out to the farmers.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the agriculture ministry to provide machines for dealing with stubble to the states. In 2018-19, the ministry had released Rs 269.4 crore, Rs 137.8 crore and Rs 148.6 crore respectively to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for the purchase of such equipment.

Air pollution had peaked after Diwali 

Air pollution had earlier crossed the hazardous level of 1,000 points on the Air Quality Index soon after Diwali on October 27.

A few days prior to that on November 1, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority had declared a public health emergency in Delhi NCR and imposed a ban on construction activity and use of several kinds of polluting fuel.

Subsequently, the chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi were summoned by the Supreme Court which directed them to take all steps to stop stubble burning.