Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Odds Against

Even as Delhi-NCR gasps for breath under severe levels of pollution which has become the norm at this time of the year, the Supreme Court on November 7 directed the governments of Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to take immediate steps to stop stubble burning by farmers in these states.

A Division Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia also directed the Delhi government to ensure that the municipal corporation does not burn the city’s solid waste in the open, as Delhi cannot be left to struggle with pollution every year. The Bench asked the centre to provide subsidies to farmers and motivate them to grow other crops so that stubble burning can be stopped before winter.

The Court stated that “the residents of Delhi have been struggling with health issues because they do not seem to find a solution year after year to the aggravating problem of pollution at this time of the year. That part of the year passes and it goes on to the next year. This has been the ongoing process for five years! It is time that something is done as of yesterday rather than postponing it and we do believe that the matter requires immediate attention and Court monitoring irrespective of the fact whether it improves or not in the next few days.”

The bench noted that in this respect some constructive suggestions were given by Gurminder Singh Kharbanda, advocate general, Punjab, and referred to them in its order. They are: 

  • The farmers are burning the stubble on account of economic reasons. The alternatives given to them are not being adhered to in some cases because of economic reasons. An endeavour should be made so that an alternative solution is provided free of cost. Thus, while expensive machines have been purchased, even where 50% or 25% of the cost is to be paid by the farmers, in view of small holdings,  the farmers are unwilling to spend even that much. The state of Punjab is willing to bear 25% of the cost of making those facilities free and 25% can be borne by Delhi. The central government can bear 50% of the cost.
  • The state of Punjab has seen a scenario where the growth of paddy is causing the water table to decline and that too drastically. A number of wells are beyond redemption. The very cultivation of paddy, which is certainly not consumed in Punjab, is a problem. Paddy cultivation must be phased out to be substituted with other crops and the central government should explore the aspect of giving minimum support price for the alternative crops rather than going for paddy.
  • The misuse is arising from minimum support price (MSP) for paddy because paddy grown in adjacent states is then brought into Punjab to claim MSP and sold under the MSP policy.
  • The particular kind of paddy which is grown mostly in Punjab and of which the stubble is a by-product, and coupled with the season when it is grown as well as the period required for cultivation, causes the problem which may not be true for Basmati grown in other states. A serious look is required whether this kind of paddy should at all be grown. In fact 15 years back, this problem did not exist because this particular cropping did not take place.
  • It is true that Delhi has a particular locational issue. Therefore, weather conditions in and around Delhi state affects the pollution level. We cannot be dependent upon the weather conditions alone to hope for some reduction.

The bench further observed that immediate action is required and the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009, has been brought to the Court’s notice. It said that no doubt the objective of that Act is to preserve the subsoil water, but there are ramifications regarding pollution arising from the violation of the provisions of the Act because if the sowing takes place after a time period, the cutting of paddy also gets delayed and then it hits the season where due to atmospheric conditions, the impact is borne by Delhi and surrounding areas. The bench said that the Act also provides for the punitive measures so that the farmers sow the crop after the specified date.

The Court said that the bottom line is the very sowing of paddy which is not a local crop and not consumed locally. The switch over to alternative crops is necessary so that next year the problem does not crop up. It further observed that the switch over can only occur when the MSP is not granted for paddy, but is given to an alternative crop, something which the central government in any case is seeking to encourage by growing and utilization of the traditional crops.

The Court directed the Punjab government, and for that matter all states adjacent to Delhi as well as some parts of Delhi, to ensure that crop burning is stopped forthwith and the local SHO is made responsible for it under the overall supervision of the DGP and chief secretary for the time being.

The solicitor general also mentioned in the Court that the chief minister of Delhi himself had said that the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s decomposer has proved to be a success in addressing the problem of stubble burning and demanded a specific timeline from the Punjab government in tackling the problem.

The bench also stated that the smog tower in Delhi, which has been instituted in pursuance to the directions issued earlier albeit on experimental basis, is not working. “On our query, the answer is some disciplinary action is proposed against an officer, who is Chairman of DPCC. This is ludicrous. We want the tower to be working. As to which officer what they do is their business,” the Court said. It suggested that a real time monitoring was to take place by the DPCC, but the result has not been put in the public domain, the Court observed. 

At the suggestion of Court-appointed amicus curiae, Senior Advocate Aparajita Singh, the Court directed the Delhi government to monitor and ensure that municipal solid waste is not burnt in the city in the open as happens during this season and has an impact. The amicus curiae informed the Court that in order to control vehicular pollution, the colour-coded sticker was envisaged and a reference was made even in the order dated, December 2, 2022, in respect of the earlier order dated, August  21, 2020. It appears that the same has been implemented only by the Delhi government and not by the adjacent states. No compliance report has been filed. The Court directed all concerned states to obtain instructions.

The Court observed that it is thus suggested that though the Delhi government is seeking to impose restrictions on the basis of “Odd-Even”, she submits that this is really an unscientific method if on the basis of colour coded stickers, vehicles which have orange stickers can be banned instead. On this aspect also the state government will report back to the Court. The Court further stated that there are a large number of the app-based taxis in Delhi which have registrations in different states. The Court said that “if we look at the roads, each one is carrying only one passenger. We would like to know whether there is any way of monitoring, especially during this period of time that only the taxis registered in Delhi are permitted to ply as an additional measure to control the pollution.” The Delhi government should place before Court, the figures of environment compensation charge, which has been collected and in what manner it has been utilized, the Court instructed.

Earlier, the Court had appointed Justice (retd) Madan Lokur to monitor actions taken against stubble burning in states such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. However, the Lokur committee was suspended when the Union government told the Court that it was coming up with a permanent authority to monitor air pollution in Delhi. 

The Supreme Court took the plea up again in November 2021 and continuously monitored measures taken by the state and Union governments to stop stubble burning. Ultimately, on the last date of the hearing, the Court asked all stakeholders to come up with a scientific solution to battle Delhi’s air pollution problem. The case has not come up in close to two years now. 

—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau


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