People in Delhi breathed ‘severely’ polluted air for the fourth day on Friday, braving the longest spell of hazardous air quality in two years as officials grappled with a crisis that seemed immune to any of their interventions – with a change in weather conditions now being seen as the only hope.
The Supreme Court pulled up the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to explain why efforts such as a ban on burning crop residue and odd-even vehicle rationing did not help, and ordered scientists to consider installing air purification towers.
“Delhi is suffering badly. The AQI inside the room is above 600 today. Outside the room, it is worse. How do people breathe?” the bench comprising justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta said during a hearing when they also ordered authorities in the national capital to clean up the 13 pollution hot spots within a week.
The judges also recorded in their order that the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme barely had any impact on the high pollution levels in the Capital, and asked the Aam Aadmi Party government to submit a detailed affidavit underlining what measures it can take further.
The hearing came on a day when predictions that pollution would decrease due to a pick-up in wind speed failed to materialise, and pollution forecasters said the situation may not increase by much over the weekend.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) 4pm bulletin, the air quality index in Delhi on Friday was 458 – close to Thursday’s 463 and Wednesday’s 456. A number in the 401-500 range is considered severe and the conditions also fulfilled the ‘emergency’ criteria as concentrations of particulate matter crossed the 300µg/m3 (PM2.5) and 500µg/m3 (PM10) thresholds.
Such levels are considered hazardous for vulnerable people such as children and the elderly, who run the risk of developing serious respiratory conditions from long exposure.
The Delhi government’s counsel, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi said odd-even curbs will be more effective without the current list of exemptions but added that it was not possible since public transport infrastructure was inadequate to cope with potential increase in commuters that will be caused if vehicles such as two-wheelers are included.
“We are not asking you to stop them but just rationalise the vehicles,” the judges said, adding: “Odd-even is not a long-term solution to the problem. It cannot work with exemptions. Public transport services should be made better. But there hasn’t been much work towards it,” the bench said.
The bench also took on record a note submitted by member secretary of CPCB stating 28% of pollution in Delhi was due to vehicular emissions, of which 8% was from trucks, 7% from two wheelers, 3% by three-wheelers, 3% by cars and 1% by low commercial vehicles (LCV).
“In cities where odd-even worked, there were no exceptions,” the bench, also hearing a PIL against the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme, said.
Justice Gupta gave Italy’s example and said: “There is no exemption under the scheme in Italy and whenever odd-even is notified, public transport is made free for all citizens.”
The judges asked the chief secretaries of Delhi and adjoining states to appear on November 25, the second time the top bureaucrats have been summoned to appear personally. The move came after it was told that farm fires had not stopped since the last hearing.
The court also directed Delhi Pollution Control Committee to enforce a ban on trucks and three-wheelers running on polluting fuel. “In case it’s found that polluting fuel is used, not only the owner but officials will also be liable,” the judge said, seeking a report in seven days. The bench will hear the matter on November 29.
The court also asked IIT Bombay to prepare a road map on the installation of smoke towers, a suggestion that was made by the court in the last hearing. A professor from the institute present in the court said research is underway to install machines that can clear air up to one kilometre. But the bench asked him to look at “bigger machines” that have a range of 10km. The court also said there shall be no trial of the machines and they should be installed directly. The bench gave seven days to IIT Bombay for submitting the road map.