Amid worsening air quality in northern India, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the governments of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to take immediate steps to stop stubble burning by farmers, Live Law reported.

A division bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia, while hearing an application in a matter concerning environmental issues, expressed concerns about the continued exposure of citizens to the hazardous air quality in Delhi.

Air quality plunges in the winter months in the national capital, which is often ranked the world’s most polluted capital. Stubble burning in the northern states, along with falling temperatures, low wind speed and emissions from industries and coal-fired plants contribute to air pollution in the region.

At 2.45 pm on Tuesday, Delhi’s air quality index stood at 364, according to real-time figures from the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ SAFAR, or System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research. An air quality index ranging between 301 and 400 falls under the “very poor” category. The air quality index in the “very poor” category can lead to respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.

The air quality index in Delhi was over 400, or in the “severe” category, for the fifth consecutive day on Monday despite mitigation efforts.

On Tuesday, the bench said that while burning stubble is not the only cause of air pollution, it is a significant contributor. Therefore, the bench said, the practice must be stopped as Delhi cannot continue in the current situation, reported Bar and Bench.

“We want it [stubble burning] stopped,” Justice Kaul told Punjab Advocate General Gurminder Singh. “We don’t know how you do it, it’s your job. But it must be stopped. Something has to be done immediately. Whether by sometimes forceful actions and sometimes by incentives... You have to stop the fire.”

As an interim mechanism, the court directed the local station house officers be made responsible for tackling stubble burning with the chief secretary of the state governments and the director generals of the police having an oversight, Live Law reported.

The court directed the Delhi government to ensure that municipal solid waste is not burnt in the open.

The court also questioned the effectiveness of the Delhi government’s odd-even plan in curbing air pollution, Live Law reported. It asked the government to submit a report on the restrictions to be imposed based on colour-coded stickers instead.

On Monday, the Delhi government announced implementing the odd-even rule in the national capital territory from November 13 to November 20. The rule, which allows vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates on the road on dates with odd numbers and those with even-numbered plates on others, will be enforced a day after Diwali.

The bench said that it will hear the matter on Friday to monitor progress.

“The residents of Delhi are grappling with health problems year after year because we cannot find a solution to the issue,” it said. “It requires immediate attention and court monitoring irrespective of the fact whether the matter improves or not.”

Also read: Why Punjab’s farmers are rejecting solutions to curb stubble burning