Observing that toxic air is a question of life and death for crores of people in Delhi-NCR, the Supreme Court on Wednesday gave a tongue lashing to governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi for their failure to curb air pollution and told them they have no right to be in power if they don't bother about people.
"You just want to sit in your ivory towers and rule. You are not bothered and are letting the people die," thundered Justice Arun Mishra, as the court ordered the governments of Punjab, Haryana and UP to give an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal within 7 days to small and marginal farmers who have not burnt crop stubble.
The burning of crop residue in the three states is stated to be responsible for 44 percent of the air pollution in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR).
As farmers continued to burn crop stubble despite its order on Monday banning this with immediate effect and holding officials accountable even if there is a single instance, the court said the government has to be made responsible.
"Can you permit people to die like this due to pollution? Can you permit the country to go back by 100 years?," asked the bench headed by Justice Mishra to Chief Secretaries of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and UP who were summoned to the court.
The hearing on the pollution matter went on for nearly three hours and beyond the close of the normal court hours till 6.15 pm with the bulk of the time taken up by Justice Mishra lashing out at the state governments. "We have to make government responsible for this," the bench said, and asked, "Why can't government machinery stop stubble burning?"
The court said despite the apex court's order, no serious efforts were made in advance by the states to prevent stubble burning. "Why you were not prepared for this (prevent stubble burning) in advance? What steps have you taken to prevent it? If state governments cannot do this, let them go. We do not bother. In case, you are not bothered about people, you have no right to be in power."
An anguished bench further said, "It is not for the court to run the government or teach you what you should do at the ground level. You have no idea, no road map to deal with it." The court said it is a question of life and death for crores of people living in the NCR region as they are suffering from a critical illness like cancer and asthma.
"How many people will suffer from cancer, asthma and so many other diseases due to this? We cannot even visualise what kind of diseases are there in Delhi due to pollution," it said.
"You (states) have forgotten the concept of welfare government. They are not bothered about poor people, this is very unfortunate," said the bench, also comprising Justice Deepak Gupta.
"We expect more from democratic governments of the country to deal with the issue of stubble burning and curb pollution," the bench said. "Don't you feel ashamed that flights are being diverted, people are dying and they are not safe even in their homes," it added.
The court questioned as to why the state governments cannot collect and purchase stubble from farmers, observing that "agriculture is the backbone of the country's economy and it's a bounden duty of the state to look after the interest of farmers".
It is absolutely necessary that the farmers are provided necessary machines to prevent stubble burning. the court said, adding "To punish farmers is not the ultimate solution".
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said he was "happy" that the Supreme Court had recognised the need to provide financial assistance to the small and marginal farmers to check the menace of stubble burning.
The court had effectively recognised that the distressed farmers had no viable alternative to stubble burning, in the absence of financial aid, he told reporters in Chandigarh.
The apex court directed the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to come out with a comprehensive plan within three months to take care of environmental and other ancillary issues.
The bench also came down heavily on the chief secretary of Delhi for the failure of the authorities to curb pollution from construction and demolition activities, open dumping of waste, burning of garbage, unpaved roads, dust on roads and traffic congestion which contribute for 56 per cent of pollution in the national capital.
"We will not permit you to play with the lives of people," the bench told the chief secretary of Delhi, adding, "It is a shocking state of affairs that there are unpaved routes and pits in the national capital of the country."
It directed that pits on roads in Delhi be taken care of by the authorities within three weeks from today. The bench directed the concerned authorities of the NCR to place before it a compliance report about the action taken by them with regard to the 14 identified pollution hot spots in Delhi, three in Haryana and one each in UP and Rajasthan.
Regarding stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the bench said small and marginal farmers should be provided with necessary machines and equipment so as to prevent crop burning.
It said that for the time being, these three states would bear the operational expenses for these machines in case of small and marginal farmers till they are provided with proper facilities.
The court said a road map be prepared by the three states about the farmers who need support from the government, adding it would later take a call on the financial aspect after the states file a detailed status report before it within a month.