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Air Pollution: Supreme Court passes directions to curb Stubble Burning

Air Pollution: Supreme Court passes directions to curb Stubble Burning

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court today passed a number of directions to tackle the issue of stubble burning, the major cause of the air pollution plaguing Delhi NCR and other regions in North India.

Among these was a direction to the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi to process the stubble and bear the costs of the same.

The States of UP, Punjab, and Haryana have been directed to provide financial assistance to the tune of Rs 100 per quintal to small and marginal farmers growing non-basmati variety of rice, to deal with the stubble within a period of seven days. The order of the Court says,

“we direct, in the facts and circumstances of the case, to take care of the stubble, which has not been burnt by the small and marginal farmers in the States of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh and to provide them financial support, quantified amount at Rs. 100/- per quintal of Non-Basmati Paddy, shall be given to those farmers within seven days from today by the State Governments to those who have not burnt the stubble.”

The Chief Secretaries of the concerned States assured the Court that the administrations will dedicate certain machinery for the use of by small and marginal farmers. It is this section of the farmers that are burning the stubble given that the machinery is made available to them by cooperative societies at a very high cost. The Court took the assurance made by the bureaucrats on record and directed the States to bear the operational costs for this machinery until a policy is framed.

“operational expenses shall be borne by the State Governments for the time being till the methodology/policy is devised to provide proper facilities of machines dedicated to small and marginal farmers in each of the States,” the Court said.

A roadmap is required to be prepared within three months for the benefit of the interests of small and marginal farmers, the Court said. The scheme will be made applicable across the country.

“Let roadmap be prepared for that purpose as it is this class of farmers who requires a support as it is by way of compulsion and short duration of time between two crops and they cannot afford the machines which are valuable, having high cost and there is so much small gap between two crops that they are forced to burn stubble in the circumstances.”

During the hearing which lasted for well over two hours, the Court pulled up the Chief Secretaries of these States for the inaction of the administration in curbing stubble burning. Court asked as to why the governments were not prepared to address the situation when the occurrence of the same was anticipated.

“Everyone knew that this (stubble burning) would happen this year also, why was the government not ready in advance and why were these machines (used to process the stubble) not provided in advance? What have you done in one year? No steps are taken throughout the year,” an angry Justice Mishra asked.

Chief Secretaries of both Punjab and Haryana told the Court that the administration had engaged in an exercise to educate, sensitize and motivate the farmers to use the machines for stubble processing instead of burning the same. Not satisfied with the results of the efforts, the Court hauled up the Chief Secretaries and asked as to why no policy was brought in to purchase this stubble off of the farmers. The entire onus of the same cannot be placed on the poor farmers who have a limited time window to deal with the stubble and prepare their fields for the next crop, the Court observed.

“We have forgotten the concept of welfare State. We are not able to provide them with modern facilities to deal with this… You cannot penalize farmers without providing them amenities. There will be law and order problem… You are not providing them basic facilities and then you want to punish the farmers. You cannot sit in your ivory tower and try to rule like this,” Justice Mishra said to the administration heads of Punjab and Haryana.”

Justice Mishra, on multiple occasions during the hearing, rued over holding the administration responsible under the Law of Torts and said that the time had come to haul up the officials and fastening responsibility on them rather than penalizing the poor farmers.

Attorney General for India KK Venugopal had suggested allowing stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana in a zone-wise fashion with each zone of the State permitted to burn stubble only on specified and allotted days. This, Venugopal suggested, would reduce the level of smoke and pollution but the suggestion was outrightly rejected by the Court. The Bench opined that stubble burning ought not to be allowed at all and instead governments should look into the prospect of purchasing stubble from the farmers who resorted to burning stubble only because that was a free-of-cost option.

With the directions issued in this regard, the Court will take up the matter for hearing next on November 15. The States are given a time of seven days to comply with the directions regarding hiring of machinery for stubble processing.

The Special Bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta took up the issue of air pollution in North India, and specifically the hazardous situation in Delhi last week. It had pulled up the Centre and the Delhi government for their inaction on the air pollution choking the national capital and surrounding areas.

The air quality index in Delhi and other parts of Northern India has crossed hazardous and toxic levels, the Court had noted. It further observed that “no room in Delhi is safe”. Despite installing air purifiers, the PM 2.5 levels were at 500 and 600, indicating a grim situation, the Bench said.

“The right to life is the most important. We can’t live like this, cannot survive in this atmosphere. We are losing precious years of our life.”

The Court had also imposed a complete ban on stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana as well as the adjacent areas in Western Uttar Pradesh.