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Take ‘real action’ on Delhi’s bad air or we’ll set up task force — SC pulls up Centre

SC pulls up central govt, says not court's job to infuse 'creativity' in bureaucracy, asks why hasn't pollution come down if govt has taken steps.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday indicated that it might create a “task force” to monitor the implementation of pollution-control measures in the national capital if the central government fails to take “real action”.

Lamenting over the failure of government authorities to control rising air pollution levels, a three-judge special bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana questioned the existence of 20-30-member panels if they can’t “work with creativity” in a situation of emergency.

“Mr Mehta, we expect a serious real action, if you cannot do it by tomorrow, then we are going to do it. We are giving you 24 hours,” CJI Ramana told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta during a hearing.

The bench was hearing a PIL filed by a 19-year-old citizen, Aditya Dubey, on Delhi’s deteriorating air quality.

The solicitor general requested the bench for some time to respond to the court’s concerns. The law officer said he will talk to the highest authority and come back with some additional measures to deal with the existing crisis.

The court made the adverse remarks when it was told that the Commission for Air Quality Management — constituted in October 2020 after the winding up of court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority — had issued directives to states and it was for the latter to implement them.

In an affidavit filed before the apex court, the Centre had sought the latter’s intervention so that the commission’s directives are followed by the states. However, Mehta Thursday opposed the court’s idea to have another task force, insisting the commission was functioning effectively.

But the bench questioned the panel’s role and expressed disappointment that by now even the sources of pollution had not been identified properly.


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‘Not court’s job to infuse creativity’

During the hearing, as Mehta advanced submissions on behalf of the Centre, the bench questioned the outcomes even before he could finish.

“If you are taking the steps then where is the problem? Why is the pollution not coming down? We have been passing directions. You have been making loud statements. The problem of stubble burning is also not there now. So why has it not come down?” the bench observed.

Asked about the major sources of pollution, Mehta said the commission had identified industrial and vehicular emissions as the primary causes.

Although the solicitor general emphasised the continuous monitoring by statutory authorities and presented the data on penalties imposed in cases of violations, the bench refused to hear him out.

“We think that nothing is happening as the pollution level is increasing. We think that we are wasting our time,” the CJI remarked. “If courts, government and everyone is doing so much, why is pollution increasing,” it said.

“What is the commission doing? In a situation of emergency, you have to work quickly and with creativity. What is the point of having a 20-30 member commission, it is another burden on state exchequer. We have to do something extraordinary otherwise it would not work,” the bench remarked on the commission’s functioning.

As they granted Mehta a day to respond, the judges added that it was not the court’s job to infuse “creativity” in bureaucracy.

The petitioner’s counsel, senior advocate Vikas Singh, also mooted the creation of a new task force that could carry out surprise checks and inspections of construction sites or industries. He informed the bench that there were several regulations prescribed, but the problem was lack of implementation on the ground.

However, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing on behalf of the Delhi government, argued against the creation of a new agency. Multiplicity of agencies “might add to the confusion”, he said.


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Delhi govt slammed too

The Supreme Court bench also came down heavily on the Delhi government for reopening the city schools, even as the national capital air quality plunged into the “severe” category. 

On behalf of the Delhi government, Singhvi explained that schools were reopened because pollution levels came down. However, the option of online school is still available and only those who consent attend school physically. He contended that the closure of schools will add to “learning loss” experienced by students.

When the senior counsel said the state was ready to comply with the court’s directions on the closure of schools, the bench shot back, “Don’t use our shoulders”.

“You are the government so you have to take action. You are saying whoever wants to come can come. If you give the option, everyone will come, who wants to stay at home. You have asked elders to sit at home, but are letting children go to school,” the bench said.

The UT administration was also pulled up for placing civil volunteers at traffic junctions with placards carrying messages to switch off car engines on the signal turning red. The bench said the government was putting the health of the volunteers at risk and termed it as a “populist measure”.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)


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