A bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant ordered strict implementation of the slew of decisions taken on Tuesday at the court-ordered emergency meeting of the Commission on Air Quality Management in NCR and adjoining areas, involving senior officials of the Centre and governments of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Recounting his two-decade-long experience with bureaucracy while functioning as a constitutional court judge, and previously as advocate general of Andhra Pradesh, CJI Ramana said, “In general, over a period of time, what I have observed is both at the Centre and in states, the bureaucracy has developed an inexplicable inertia and apathy. They don’t want to take any decision. (In the pollution case) they want the courts to pick up buckets of water and douse the farm fires. They want the courts to catch polluting vehicles and industries. All these things the courts have to do. This is the attitude developed by the executive.”
When a reference to allegations of the Centre “misleading” the court on farm fires came up, the bench said it has stated all facts in its affidavit and did not misrepresent matters. The CJI said, “It is common sense that farm fires in two months every year increase pollution levels in Delhi and NCR. We understand the plight of the farmers and do not want to penalise them. Yet, we have asked the state governments concerned to persuade the farmers not to burn stubble for two weeks. There is no point in raising the issue of farm fires again and again.”
The court wondered why the executive is waiting for a court order to call for the emergency meeting: “Why were these decisions not taken earlier by the executive? Why does the Supreme Court have to set an agenda, force officials of the Centre and states to meet, and take emergent steps to curb pollution?
“On Tuesday, the meeting took place. Why can’t the officers summarise the minutes of the meeting and clearly inform the court — these are things which have been decided, these have been implemented, these are the other measures required to be taken and then specify what directions have been issued to achieve the target on the ground,” the CJI said.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta said it is the solemn duty of the Centre and states and every official to earnestly take all steps to implement the decisions taken at the meeting of the Commission. When this failed to assuage the SC’s angst, Mehta attempted to lighten the mood by narrating a poignant yet humorous fictional account of how bureaucracy acts.
But it was off-target. The CJI said, “It is unfortunate that the executive has come to this pass. The bureaucracy does not want to do anything. They do not want to pass any orders. All they want is — let the court prepare draft measures. Let the court pass orders. Once the Supreme Court passes an order, they will simply put their signature on executive order saying it is as per the directions of the SC.” The SG narrated another humorous story about bureaucracy and succeeded in stopping the torrent of caustic observations. He then detailed the decisions taken at the meeting before the bench.
On Delhi, the bench questioned the AAP government on augmentation of road-sweeping machines. Senior advocate AM Singhvi said the municipal corporations have placed a requirement of 15 such machines and the Delhi government has agreed to release funds and procure these for municipal corporations immediately. “Delhi ticks 90% of the measures decided to be taken at the Tuesday meeting and is ready to do everything that is required for bringing down the pollution levels,” Singhvi said. The bench asked whether 15 more machines were enough to sweep 8,500km of roads in Delhi, which at present has 69 such machines. Singhvi said the government is ready to procure more machines as and when the demands are raised by civic bodies.
However, he touched a raw nerve by blaming the farm fires while petitioner’s counsel Vikas Singh stressed that during the two winter months, farm fires contributed more than 40% towards the pollution in Delhi and accused the Centre of misleading the court by stating that it was only 4-10%. The solicitor general said he has stated all facts and mentioned farm fires contributing majorly during the two winter months but scientific studies indicate that on an annual basis, the contribution is 4%. Piggybacking on the SC’s “common sense” comment, the SG interjected in a lighter vein: “Common sense is like a deodorant. Those who do not use it, make others suffer.”
The bench told the Delhi government and the petitioner, “If you persist with farm fires, it will force us to make comments and create a controversy which would completely derail the main issue — how to curb pollution from all major sources. What have you done to implement SC orders banning firecrackers? For the last 10 days, cracker bursting has been taking place in every area of Delhi and NCR. Can you say firecrackers do not cause pollution?”
The SG said central government employees have not been asked to ‘work from home’ as the number of vehicles used by them is minuscule. “Normalcy in work at central government offices has come back after a long hiatus caused by the pandemic. Asking employees to WFH would have a pan-India impact.” The Delhi government said it has adopted WFH policy for its employees.
The bench suggested to the Centre that since there are a large number of colonies where most central government officials and personnel reside, the Centre could think of engaging buses to ferry them to and from office. The SG said the Centre would sincerely attempt to implement this suggestion of the court.
The SG said that the Met department has predicted that the wind speed would pick up after November 21 and that pollution would get considerably reduced. The bench said, “When the executive and bureaucracy do not work, we have to depend on nature and God’s mercy.” It posted the matter for further hearing on November 24 for stock-taking of steps taken by the Centre and NCR states to bring down pollution levels.