Air Pollution in Delhi and NCR:

The air quality in Delhi, the capital territory of India, according to a WHO survey of 1,650 world cities, is the worst of any major city in the world. It also affects the districts around Delhi. Air pollution in India is estimated to kill about 2 million people every year; it is the fifth largest killer in India. India has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma, according to the WHO. In Delhi, poor quality air irreversibly damages the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children.

Air quality index of Delhi is generally Moderate (101–200) level between January to September, and then it drastically deteriorates to Very Poor (301–400), Severe (401–500) or Hazardous (500+) levels during October to December due to various factors including stubble burning, road dust, vehicle pollution and cold weather.

On 25 November 2019, the Supreme Court of India made statements on the pollution in Delhi saying “Delhi has become worse than narak (hell)”. Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra said that it is better to get explosives and kill everyone.

Causes of poor air quality:

Motor vehicle emissions are one of the causes of poor air quality. Other causes include wood-burning fires, fires on agricultural land, exhaust from diesel generators, dust from construction sites, burning garbage and illegal industrial activities in Delhi. 

Although pollution is at its worst from November to February, Delhi’s air misses clean-air standards by a wide margin for much of the year. It is a noxious mix of emissions from its 9 million vehicles, construction dust and burning of waste. On the worst days, the air quality index, a benchmark ranging from zero (good) to 500 (hazardous), exceeds 400.

Stubble burning is intentionally setting fire to the straw stubble that remains after grains, like paddy, wheat, etc., have been harvested. The practice was widespread until the 1990s, when governments increasingly restricted its use.

Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana in northwest India has been cited as a major cause of air pollution in Delhi. Consequently, the government is considering implementation of the 1,600 km long and 5 km wide Great Green Wall of Aravalli. In late September and October each year, farmers mainly in Punjab and Haryana burn an estimated 35 million tons of crop waste from their paddy fields after harvesting as a low-cost straw-disposal practice to reduce the turnaround time between harvesting and sowing for the second (winter) crop. Smoke from this burning produces a cloud of particulates visible from space and has produced what has been described as a “toxic cloud” in New Delhi, resulting in declarations of an air-pollution emergency. For this, the NGT (National Green Tribunal) instituted a fine of Rs. 2,00,000 on the Delhi Government for failing to file an action plan providing incentives and infrastructural assistance to farmers to stop them from burning crop residue to prevent air pollution.

Although harvesters such as the Indian-manufactured “Happy Seeder” that shred the crop residues into small pieces and uniformly spread them across the field are available as an alternative to burning the crops, some farmers complain that the cost of these machines is prohibitive compared to burning the fields.

 

Supreme Court on Air Pollution:

While hearing a petition filed by two young environmental activists – a Class 12 student, who under his own initiative of “Plant A Million Trees”, has planted 150,000 trees in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), and a third-year law student who is an active campaigner against single-use plastic, the Supreme Court remarked that stubble burning is turning out to be a potent killer in times of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday with a bench moving swiftly to post two applications and a separate petition on the issue for October 16 and asking the chief secretaries of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to remain present in court that day.

The petition demanded that the court stop the stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana which poses a health risk to citizens of Delhi-NCR by enveloping the region in a dense, smoggy fog during the winters. 

The apex court had on October 16 appointed retired judge Justice Madan B Lokur to monitor stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh amid rising pollution in Delhi and its surrounding areas. “We are only concerned about the citizens of Delhi-NCR being able to breathe in fresh clean air,” the top court said. The Supreme Court also declined to accept the centre’s request to reconsider the appointment of the one-man committee of Justice (retd) Lokur. 

The next hearing on the case has been scheduled on October 26.

The Narendra Modi government on Monday, October 26, admitted that existing mechanism didn’t work too well. The Solicitor General also admitted that the mechanism of the government has not worked too well and told the top court that a permanent body to deal with the issue may also be created.

Central government informed the Supreme Court that it will bring a law to create a permanent body through legislation to deal with the stubble burning and tackle the air pollution in Delhi and its adjoining areas in winters. Appearing on behalf of the central government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta informed the apex court that the legislation is being contemplated and the draft of the proposed law on air pollution will be ready by the next week.

The bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde welcomed the central government’s decision and said that it was a necessary move since everyone in the city was choking due to air pollution.

“This is a welcome step. This is an issue that anyway should have been looked into by the government. Everyone in this city is choking due to bad air,” the bench said.

“We acknowledge the mechanism we have at present has not worked too well. We are yet to finalize the fine print of the law. We will, however, be ready with draft legislation very soon,” he said.

Following the government’s assurance, the Supreme Court also suspended the Justice Madan B Lokur Committee to oversee the steps to tackle stubble burning.