India’s top court backs working from home amid air pollution crisis

Court also directed federal government to convene an emergency meeting on Tuesday

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Monday 15 November 2021 13:27
Delhi monuments shrouded in smog

India’s top court on Monday asked the federal government and states around Delhi to enable their employees to work from home amid an increasing air pollution crisis.

The Supreme Court pulled up the Delhi government and accused it of making “lame excuses” for not taking emergency measures to reduce the toxic smog engulfing the region.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Surya Kant ordered the prime minister’s Narendra Modi-led central government to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday.

The government should take necessary steps such as shutting down non-essential construction transport, power plants and implementing working-from-home to tackle the crisis, the court said.

In an affidavit filed before the hearing, the Delhi government told the court that it was ready to implement a complete lockdown to fight air pollution.

They argued that a similar restriction would be needed to be enforced around Delhi in the National Capital Region as well. The National Capital Region is made of Delhi and districts surrounding it from the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The apex court had on Saturday raised the alarm over the shockingly high air pollution levels and called on the authorities in Delhi to shut down the city for two days.

After the festival of Diwali on 5 November, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi slipped to “severe” levels and hit nearly 400-500 in almost all parts of the city. An AQI above 50 is harmful to human health.

The court accused authorities in Delhi of “passing the buck” after advocate Rahul Mehra, appearing for the government, submitted that the responsibility of cleaning roads using mechanised machines lay with the municipal corporations.

After the Delhi government claimed that farmers’ crop stubble burning in neighbouring states led to the escalation of pollution in the capital, the top court’s judges responded sharply.

“It has become a fashion for everyone to bash the farmers. Have you seen how [fire] crackers are being burnt in Delhi for the last 7 days,” Justice Kant had asked the Delhi government on Saturday.

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. 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.

Delhi’s pollution is exacerbated each winter by crop stubble burning in neighbouring states. However, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court on Monday that farm waste burning accounted for just 10 per cent of the emissions, and at least 74 per cent pollution was caused due to industries, dust and vehicles.

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