Concerns over stubble burning turning out to be a potent killer in times of the Covid-19 pandemic echoed in 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 three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde said: “It is an important issue or else the whole air will go bad.”
The Court was 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 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 .
Along with the petition, the court heard two applications as part of the MC Mehta case that deals with environmental pollution in Delhi-NCR.
Vikrant Tongad, a member of the Zila Samiti on the issue of crop burning in Gautam Budh Nagar district of UP demanded that Happy Seeder machines meant to mechanically remove crop stubble be mandatorily issued to farmers either free or at subsidized rates. For preventing crop fires, he suggested satellite-based geospatial technology that is already in use by the Centre for mapping and preventing forest fires.
Although in the past, the Supreme Court had ordered the states of Punjab, UP and Haryana to provide cash incentive to farmers who do not resort to crop burning, Tongad suggested that the court consider making payment of minimum support price (MSP) to farmers subject to verification that they have not resorted to stubble burning.
The bench, also comprising justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said: “Let Union of India file reply…Let the chief secretaries of the states viz., Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, be present before this Court on the next date of hearing.”
The second application was filed by a Supreme Court lawyer, Manali Singhal, who through her plea sought immediate curbs on stubble burning. She produced international research which showed how air pollution can “exacerbate” the spread of the Covid-19 infection, posing high risk to senior citizens, children and people with respiratory illness.
The application suggested appointment of an officer or Commissioner to enforce Court’s past orders to end stubble burning. Such powers are available to an officer so appointed under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the application stated.
The bench asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta if such an officer has been appointed. Mehta said he will seek instructions and inform the court.
Senior advocate Aparajita Singh. who is assisting the Court as amicus curiae (friend of the Court), responded by saying that over the past years, the court was getting assistance on stubble burning and related environmental issues from a statutory authority called Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, in short EPCA, which has been submitting regular reports to the court.
Just prior to Tuesday’s hearing, EPCA filed a report showing how the state governments assured the Supreme Court in November 2019 that all measures are in place. This assurance was recorded by the Court in its order of July 30 and August 24 this year.
“The chief secretaries of the neighbouring states are present here. The court must ask them as to why despite repeated assurances in the past, stubble burning continues to happen?”
The court was of the view that the issue required an expert to deal with. “Suggest impartial people who can examine this issue. How can courts go into this,” the bench remarked. One of the applicants suggested appointing former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur. amicus curiae; the applicant informed the court that EPCA is the expert body constituted under Section 5 of Environment Protection Act.
The Delhi government, represented by advocate Dinesh Dwivedi, informed the court that the issue need not require a separate agency to supervise as the court had been “hand-holding” the issue over the past many years.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, who appeared for the two young environmental activists, told the court that he will suggest the names of few independent experts. In his petition, Singh argued, “The consequence of allowing any stubble burning to take place in the times of this pandemic will be catastrophic…enhanced pollution level can offer direct pathway for airborne transmission” of the Covid-19 virus.