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Understanding Supreme Court's long history of orders on Delhi air pollution

SC’s most memorable intervention was 1998 order to convert public transport to CNG

supreme court arvind jain (File) Supreme Court | Arvind Jain

The Supreme Court has over the last few days done its bit to make the authorities sit up and take notice of the worsening air quality in the National Capital Region. Fuming at the perceived inaction by the governmental set-up, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana went to the extent of remarking that bureaucrats have developed a “don't take any step” attitude and that they want the court to pass orders and are happy to implement them.

The intervention by the top court as it hears a petition filed with regard to the increasing toxicity of the air in Delhi is the latest in a long engagement that it has had on the issue. And a look at the court's orders in recent years makes it evident that several steps taken by the authorities have been in response to the court's directions.

With the smog over the national capital post-Diwali becoming a recurring phenomenon year after year, acting on PILs in this regard, the court had in 2016 passed orders banning sale and use of firecrackers in Delhi. It had gone on, in 2018, to allow sale and use of 'green firecrackers' in Delhi. In July 2021, the court had dismissed pleas challenging the National Green Tribunal's order banning sale and use of firecrackers in the NCR.

In 2019, the apex court had in view of the rising air pollution in the national capital asked the governments concerned to inform it about the steps taken to stop burning of stubble. The court had said that the time has come when accountability should be fixed for the situation as it is destroying the right to life, in gross violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. The court went on to direct the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab to grant financial assistance to small and marginal farmers to dissuade them from burning stubble. It also asked the state governments to provide farmers with machines that they can hire to remove stubble.

The Supreme Court had also asked the Delhi government to install a smog tower at Connaught Place and ordered it to use smog guns at construction sites.

In October 2020, the court had set up one-man panel under retired justice Madan B. Lokur to oversee the steps taken to prevent stubble burning. But it was put in abeyance following a request from the Centre. Subsequently, the Union government introduced an ordinance to set up a Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and adjoining areas.

The Supreme Court's most memorable intervention probably was its 1998 order to convert all public transport to compressed natural gas, a cleaner fuel compared with petrol and diesel. In 2016, the court passed a similar order, banning all non-CNG cabs from the National Capital Region. 

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