Supreme Court declares Delhi smog an emergency and recommends immediate shutdown of city

‘Breathing the air in Delhi is like smoking 20 cigarettes in a day’

Arpan Rai
Saturday 13 November 2021 10:43 GMT
Delhi monuments shrouded in smog

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Louise Thomas

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India’s top court on Saturday raised the alarm over the shockingly high air pollution levels in the national capital, calling on the Delhi authorities to shut down the city for two days.

The Supreme Court, which is itself located in central Delhi, noted the thick blanket of smog that has been engulfing Delhi and adjoining states for over a week now, saying its judges were forced to wear pollution masks even when indoors at their own homes.

A special bench comprising of the chief justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana and justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant was hearing a plea filed by a 17-year-old student as the Air Quality Index in Delhi slipped to “severe” levels, and hit nearly 400-500 in almost every part of the city. An AQI above 50 is seen as harmful to human health.

Pollution watchdogs have asked people not to step outside or exercise in the open until the toxic air levels get better.

“Take immediate control measures. Tell us how immediately we can reduce AQI by 200 points. If required, think of a two days lockdown or something... How will people live?” the top judge in the country told India’s solicitor general Tushar Mehta on Saturday, reported legal news website Live Law.

"You see how bad the situation is… We have been forced to wear masks at home also, the situation is very serious," the CJI said.

India’s federal administration and northern states like Delhi, Punjab and Haryana have been given 48 hours to submit their responses on how pollution levels can be reduced by 200 points.

The attorneys representing the country and northern states told the Supreme Court that they will be holding an emergency meeting today to come up with a plan.

Breathing the air in Delhi is like smoking 20 cigarettes in a day, the advocate representing Delhi administration said in the court, confirming they are aware of the grave situation.

The judges also came down heavily on the Delhi administration for opening up schools earlier this month for the first time since the pandemic began, saying officials had exposed tens of thousands of children to deadly air as well as the ongoing Covid threat and a severe outbreak of dengue.

Qutab Minar and Lotus Temple wreathed in smog in Delhi on 12 November
Qutab Minar and Lotus Temple wreathed in smog in Delhi on 12 November (YouTube/ANI News)

“You have opened all schools and now you are exposing little children and their lungs to the hazardous air at 7 in the morning. This is not the central government’s but your jurisdiction,” said Justice DY Chandrachud questioning Delhi’s senior counsel Rahul Mehra.

After Mr Mehra pointed to agricultural crop burning in adjoining states like Punjab and Haryana as the cause of the rising pollution levels, the top court’s judges responded sharply. Delhi’s pollution is exacerbated each winter by crop stubble burning in neighbouring states — but it is also caused by a range of factors including industry, construction and vehicular traffic within the capital itself.

“You are making it as if farmers are responsible for this. What about the steps taken to contain the (internal) pollution in Delhi or steps like emission controls?” the Justice Ramana asked.

Justice Kant said it is unfair to pin the blame on farmers alone. “Now it has become a fashion to bash the farmers whether it’s Delhi government or someone else. There was ban on firecrackers (fireworks), what happened with that?” the judge pointed out.

“Eighty per cent of pollution in Delhi is due to causes apart from stubble burning... What’s being done for that?” Justice Kant asked.

Delhi had attempted to impose a total ban on the sale and purchase of fireworks ahead of Diwali — when celebrations of the Hindu festival of lights see the capital’s air pollution reach its peak levels.

A man rows a boat in Yamuna River, covered by a chemical foam caused by industrial and domestic pollution, in Delhi.
A man rows a boat in Yamuna River, covered by a chemical foam caused by industrial and domestic pollution, in Delhi. (AP)

But the visuals and reports from Diwali celebrations in Delhi showed widespread violations of the ban, as fireworks continued to explode throughout the night of 4 November and for several days after.

Experts say that now Delhi’s smog has settled in, remaining in place due to the cold, still conditions, the only way to dispel the air pollution is to wait for favourable environmental conditions like strong winds.

The matter has now been adjourned to Monday, where the federal and state administrations will have to present the steps they plan to take to tackle the hazardous pollution levels.

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