Delhi air pollution: Stubble burning debate simmers

As soon as the bench of Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, Justices D Y Chandrachud and Surya Kant assembled, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said: “I have to say something at the outset… I heard some irresponsible and nasty utterances on television media against me that I misled the court on stubble burning.”

Heat from the stubble burning debate was felt in the Supreme Court Wednesday as the Centre attempted to explain why it had stated on the previous date of hearing that the contribution of crop burning to Delhi’s air quality was 4 percent, and the top court stating that it was not misled when it said stubble burning did not appear to be the major cause of air pollution in the national capital.

As soon as the bench of Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, Justices D Y Chandrachud and Surya Kant assembled, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said: “I have to say something at the outset… I heard some irresponsible and nasty utterances on television media against me that I misled the court on stubble burning.”

Intervening, Justice Chandrachud — who had on the previous day referred to 4 percent as appearing in an affidavit filed by the Centre — recalled that senior advocate Vikas Singh, who appeared for the petitioner in the matter, had pointed out that if one goes to the annexure to the affidavit, the figure is 35-40%. “We were not misled at all,” he added.

The SG read out the affidavit and submitted that what he had said was that though the overall contribution of stubble burning throughout the year might be less, its contribution increases during October and November.

“I have said some factors contribute throughout the year and some for limited time like stubble burning, which happens in neighbouring states for 2 months. The impact of stubble burning is not throughout the year but is felt during winter… There is also increased wind movement in the direction of NCR during these months… I have also said post-Diwali, there has been an increase of fire and stubble burning instances and how efforts need to be taken to reduce the stubble burning as it becomes 35-40% in 2 months.”

Vikas Singh pointed out that the SG had said on Monday that stubble burning contributes only 10% to the pollution.

The CJI said that if one goes by Wednesday’s newspapers, each has its own statistics. “We are clear. Our conscience is clear. We are working for the betterment… Forget it,” he remarked.

Mehta said it was projected as if the Centre told the court the figure was 3-4 percent “due to elections”. The CJI advised the SG that people in public offices are prone to such criticism, and that it is best ignored. He added “It’s common sense. This is the season of crop burning. Because of wind, etc, there is a possibility…”

Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the Delhi government, pointed out that a study by the central government-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) had estimated the contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s pollution was 36%.

The CJI said that “the focus is how to reduce pollution, the purpose of debate is to control pollution” and asked, “Why raise this again and again?”

Singhvi replied that the court had said 4 percent and that if that is the fact, then stubble burning need not be seriously pursued. “It is our duty to tell you that stubble burning is a reason” and it should be tackled, he said.

On earlier dates of hearing, the bench was upset when arguments hovered around stubble burning as a cause for pollution. On Wednesday, the CJI said “we don’t want to penalise farmers. So we asked states to persuade them.” Singhvi said he was not for penalising them.

Justice Suryakant said, “People sitting in 5 stars in Delhi keep blaming farmers, that 4%, 5% is attributed to them. After agrarian laws, what happened to their landholdings? With such small landholdings, can they afford these machines? If you actually have any scientific alternative, please go and convince them…” Justice Kant added.

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