“Some Project Us As Villains”: Supreme Court On Delhi Schools’ Closure

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An aggrieved Supreme Court on Friday clarified that the decision to shut down schools in Delhi over the air quality crisis was not entirely on its initiative.

The court – hearing a long-running argument over controlling, if not eliminating, the clouds of toxic air that smother the national capital every winter – suggestions on closures of various institutions had come from the Delhi government in its affidavits and the court had only pointed out schools were open (and children exposed to poisonous air) while adults had the option of working from home.

Chief Justice NV Ramana, heading the three-judge bench in this matter, appeared upset at some newspaper reports on yesterday’s hearings that said the court had pressed for the closure of schools.

“… we don’t know whether it is intentional or not. Some sections of the media … and some people try to project us as villains… (and say) we want closure of schools. It was the Delhi government’s own suggestion on closing things – WFH, etc. Have you seen the papers today?” the Chief Justice asked.

To this senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi (representing the Delhi government) responded: “You must put the blame where it lies. Today one newspaper in particular has portrayed yesterday’s hearing as an aggressive combat… that newspaper is at variance with two others. I am also an aggrieved party.”

“Some projecting as if we aren’t concerned about welfare of students…” the Chief Justice remarked.

The Chief Justice, who has in the past spoken up for freedom of the press, pointed out that while the media held “the right and freedom to condemn (but) we can’t do that…”

“Freedom of press, we can’t say anything. They can say anything, point anything,” he said.

During yesterday’s hearing the court had questioned the Delhi government’s decision to re-open schools despite air pollution levels in the ‘severe’ or ‘hazardous’ category.

“… three-year-olds and four-year-olds are going to schools but adults are working from home…” the court pointed out, to which the Mr Singhvi said the government had been concerned about “learning loss” for students. “We reopened with the condition including the option for online,” he said.

Unconvinced, the court asked the senior lawyer to “get instructions on what the Delhi government is doing on schools and offices” and set a deadline of 24 hours.

Hours later the Delhi government shut down schools in the national capital till further notice.

“We reopened schools considering the forecast that air quality would improve. However, air pollution levels have increased again and we have decided to shut schools from Friday till further orders,” Delhi’s Environment Minister, Gopal Rai, said.

Delhi’s air quality deteriorated to dangerous levels last month after Diwali. Farm fires were also cited as a reason – but that led to debates and blame games. A month on, the city is still gasping for air.

At this morning’s hearing the court was told squads of officers had been formed to ensure air pollution laws are followed. These squads, the court was told, would have power to take punitive and preventive action against defaulters, and the number of such squads will be increased to 40 in 24 hours.

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