Masks have been part of people living in Delhi-NCR for a long time now. Before COVID-19, there was air pollution for them. As soon as October starts, the mercury starts dropping in the National Capital Region (NCR). A white blanket of smog covers the whole Delhi-NCR. There are multiple reasons for this, including but not limited to firecrackers during Diwali festival, a high number of vehicles and stubble burning. Resultantly, these are the major reasons and causes of pollution in Delhi-NCR.
Every year, Courts meet and talk about how to tackle the above-laid problem. Various guidelines are also issued every year by the Court. Nonetheless, enough attention is not given to these guidelines by the state and the central government. Previously, the Court had issued guidelines for governments of neighbouring States, the Centre, and the Delhi Government. But like every time, it can be construed that not much work was done on the ground. This year again, a plea has been filed before the Supreme Court of India.
The New PIL before the Supreme Court
A Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the Court ahead of the season of harvesting. The stubble burning happens in the month from September till January in the State of Haryana and Punjab. This PIL has been filed by Advocate Nikhil Jain and two students. One of the appellants is a 3rd-year law student, Aman Banka, and another appellant is a class 12th student, Aditya Dubey. This PIL highlights the fact that 40-45% of the pollution in Delhi NCR is caused by stubble burning.
For clarity, “stubble burning is the act of setting fire to crop residue to remove them from the field to sow the next crop.” This PIL revolves around the claim that the right of life of the people living in Delhi-NCR is being threatened by stubble burning. The appellants claim that the Right to Breathe Clean Air is a fundamental right, which is covered under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The aforesaid constitutional provision guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. The appellants point out that this violation is caused by the failure of the central and state governments. The governments fail to keep the pollution level within the permissible limits.
The PIL talks about the thousands of stubble burning incidents which happened last year. Such incidents were one of the major contributors to filling the air of Delhi-NCR with suspended particulate matter. This caused the Air Quality Index of Delhi-NCR to reach 1000 at a lot of places. This caused severe respiratory, skin, and ophthalmic diseases. There were even deaths reported due to pollution. This is a clear violation of the fundamental rights of the people living in Delhi-NCR. The appellants ask the Court to issue guidelines for the respondent states regarding the availability of stubble removing machines to the small and marginal farmers. These machines should be provided free of cost.
The petitioners argued, in the Court, that the present cases of stubble burning are a direct result of the non-availability of financial resources for other alternatives. Hence, there is the only option for these farmers, i.e. to burn the stubble. The petition also mentions the study of Harvard School on Covid-19 and air pollution. As per the study, air pollution may act as a catalyst in COVID-19 cases. It may aggravate the mild cases to the extreme one. The report also claims that people living in an area with higher pollution levels have more chances of dying from coronavirus. The petitioners also mention the study of Louisiana State University. This study shows that pollution may give a new pathway for airborne transmission of COVID-19.
The petitioners have asked for several reforms in the form of directions. Some of them are as follows:
1. Fixing of the highest price for rental of stubble removing machines in the period of September 2020 to January 2021.
2. Reimbursement of money spent by small and marginal farmers on renting stubble removal machines.
3. Inclusion of stubble removal under the activities covered in MNREGA. This will help in getting these activities covered by MNREGA workers.
4. Direction to states for imposing heavy fines. These fines should be applied to people who burn stubble even after alternatives being provided to the people.
The petitioners also asked for issuing special orders for the Delhi Government as follows:
Firstly, activities relating to construction and polluting industries should only be allowed to function when AQI of Delhi is below 150. This should be followed in September 2020 and January 2021. If the AQI crosses 150 in Delhi, an automatic suspension of such activities should be done. Secondly, the odd-Even scheme of the Delhi government should get activated as soon as the AQI crosses 200.
Thirdly, a one-man commission should be formed to check the steps taken by the Delhi Government for tackling the issue of pollution. This commission’s head should be a retired Supreme Court judge. This commission should preferably be headed by the justice Madan Lokur. And lastly, the matter is still sub judice in the Supreme Court of India.
Steps Adopted for Management
Delhi Government is now planning to use bio decomposer to convert stubble into manure. This bio decomposer has been created by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, PUSA. Delhi Government is planning to spray this decomposer across 700 hectares of farmland. The cost of this drive would be nearly equivalent to Rs. 20 lakhs. Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal said that this drive would start from 11th October 2020.
Meanwhile, the condition in Punjab is also not good. Recent satellite images of NASA show that incidents of stubble burning have started in the nation. These images were taken between September 11, 2020. Farmers have still not been given any support for hiring machines for stubble farming. As per Punjab Government, a total of 50,185 machines were hired to help farmers to move to other alternatives of removing stubble. The government had also claimed that they have created 7,738 custom hiring companies which helped the government in hiring machines for stubble management. The state also claims that by doing this, they were able to save half of their total stubble produced from burning.
According to the data available, Punjab produced 20 million tonnes of stubble. Out of the 20 million tonnes, the government said that 9.8 million was burned. Similarly, the Haryana government also accepted that their farmers set ablaze approx. 1.23 million tons of stubble.
Substitutes Available for Management
There are many substitutes available for stubble management. But they are not taught to the farmers. Some help from the government and NGOs can help the farmers switch to them. Some of these substitutes are:
1. Waste decomposer: Government of Delhi has adopted this method. In this method, a solution of chemical and water is made. These chemicals are distributed in forms of tablets which cost Rs. 20 only. According to the officials, 10000 metric tons of stubble can be converted into manure within 30 days.
2. Conversion in animal food and cardboards: This practice is prevalent in South India. Agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan points out the economical value of the stubble which people usually forget. The scientist asks people to use the do-ecology approach for stubble management. Naandi organization has been doing this for a long time now. They buy stubble from farmers to convert it into farm manure, cardboards, and animal food.
3. Happy seeder: In this method, a tractor-mounted machine cuts and lifts rice straw. It then sows wheat into the bare soil. Meanwhile, the straw gets deposited over the sown area and acts as mulch. This machine is called the happy seeder.
4. Conversion of stubble into cutlery: This method has been started by a startup from IIT Delhi ‘Kriya Labs‘. They have developed a machine that converts rice straws into pulp. Further, this pulp is converted into biodegradable cutlery.
Every year, the National Capital Region of India transforms into a gas chamber for four months. But the problem of pollution is not seasonal. An average Delhite inhales pollutants during these months which are equivalent to 20 cigarettes in a day. The government needs to take necessary steps to curb pollution even if it means a strict punishment for the violators. As the court said in the Taj Trapezium case, “thoughtless development can cause avoidable harm to the environment”, we need to consider that are farmers the only cause of pollution in Delhi. The reports claim that farmers are not the only culprit. In other words, extensive research is needed over the cause of such large-scale pollution.
A large number of vehicles, construction, law-breaking industries, and stubble burning are the major contributors. Thus, action against all of them is needed. The Supreme Court has through regular pleas, have tried to change the condition of Delhi. The governments have taken some steps, but these steps and directions are not enough. The government and Court, both, lack intent and dedication. If concrete steps are not taken, Delhi will choke this year also. Resultantly, soon it would not be a periodic change; rather, it will be a permanent gas chamber.
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