Steps to improve Delhi’s air quality seem to be only on paper, the Supreme Court remarked on Tuesday on the persistent problem of air pollution caused “year after year” in the national capital, even as it sought responses from the governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan on steps taken to control crop burning.
On a detailed status report filed by the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in the National Capital Region and adjoining areas, which said that the number of farm fires — one of the major issues that annually contribute to Delhi’s polluted air — had reduced over previous years, a bench headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said, “What bothers us is to see this (pollution) year after year. The CAQM report is comprehensive but the problem of air pollution persists.”
On Tuesday, Delhi’s air was in the “very poor” range as outlined by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the fourth consecutive day, with an air quality reading of 359.
The bench, also comprising justices Sudhanshu Dhulia and PK Mishra asked Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to file the affidavits on the action taken within a week, as it felt that the ground reality is very different, with media reports indicating a spurt in farm fires.
The court posted the matter for November 7, directing the respective chief secretaries to file the affidavits indicating action taken under eight heads of pollution causes flagged by CAQM.
One of the eight causes is stubble-burning — when farmers mostly in Punjab and Haryana set paddy remnants on fire as a cheap and quick way to clear their fields — which triggers the worst pre-winter air quality crisis in Delhi. As the winter season passes by, there are usually more episodes when air quality plunges — at fault then is the high baseline pollution trapped by cold and still conditions.
CAQM in its latest status report of October 28 gave details on the action taken on the eight fronts.
According to the report, the incidents of crop burning in 2022 between September 15 and November 30 was 53,792, which was 32% less than the total incidents reported for this period in the previous two years. In 2020 and 2021, the numbers were 87,632 and 78,550, respectively, in the corresponding period.
The report was in response to an October 10 order of the top court seeking steps being taken for control of air pollution in and around the Capital owing to the onset of winters.
In the current year, the commission gathered data of over a month between September 14 and October 24, and found 2,306 instances of crop burning in Punjab, and 813 in Haryana.
Advocate Suhasini Sen, representing the Centre, informed the court that the corresponding figures for last year were 5,617 (Punjab) and 1,360 (Haryana).
She said the reduction in farm fires was the result of steps taken by the commission with the respective state governments on alternative disposal of crop stubble.
She indicated that an action plan was drawn up to entirely eliminate stubble burning in six districts of Punjab, as well as Haryana and UP.
“Statistics at times can be deceptive,” the bench remarked, adding, “All these steps are only on paper. We have to see what the ground reality is. What is the impact of these steps if the air quality does not improve.”
Senior advocate ADN Rao, assisting the court as amicus curiae, suggested that the apex court may call for action taken reports from concerned states on steps suggested by the commission. To this, the bench said, “We direct the governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and national capital territory of Delhi to file their affidavits in this regard within a week.”
The commission in its report also indicated action taken under various other heads that cause pollution, namely vehicular pollution, dust pollution from construction/demolition activities, burning of municipal solid waste, pollution by diesel generator sets, industrial pollution, among other factors.