The Supreme Court on Wednesday castigated the governments of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for failing to curb stubble burning, which is contributing to rising pollution levels in the Delhi-National Capital Region and other parts of North India, Bar and Bench reported. The court said it was a “question of life and death of crores of people”, and gave them seven days to purchase the stubble being burnt by farmers.

On Tuesday, the court had summoned the chief secretaries of these states after registering on its own a case related to severe pollution in the region. It said the authorities cannot allow a mass exodus of people from Delhi because of pollution.

The Air Quality Index in Delhi at 6.30 pm stood at 235 in the “poor” category as schools and colleges reopened after four days.

“Governments need to be hauled up under law of torts,” said the court, a day after the Centre admitted that crop burning was going on in Punjab and Haryana. “Why is government not buying stubble? Only poor farmer should be penalised while government is not made accountable? It cannot be like this.”

The court said it expects “more from democratic government of the country to deal with issue of stubble burning and curb pollution”, PTI reported.

“Can you permit people to die like this due to pollution?” it asked. “Can you permit the country to go back by 100 years? We have to make governments responsible for this. We cannot even visualise what kind of diseases people are suffering from due to pollution.”

The court said state governments “have no right to be in power” if they do not bother about people. “You just want to sit in your ivory towers and rule,” said Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta. “You are not bothered and are letting the people die. You have forgotten concept of welfare government, not bothered about poor people, this is very unfortunate. Don’t you feel ashamed that flights are being diverted and citizens are not safe even in their homes?”

The judges tore into the chief secretary of Punjab when he said the Centre was responsible for purchasing the stubble from farmers. The court said the time had come to punish officers. “Again you are passing the buck,” said Mishra. “Why are you chief secretary if you cannot do anything? We will suspend you from here only, you won’t be able to work even for a single day. What is this?”

The court asked Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to formulate a plan to purchase stubble, ensure it is not burnt anymore, and make the entire state administration responsible to combat air pollution. “If you don’t have the funds, tell us we will provide for the fund. Don’t think about the funds right now,” Mishra said.

When the chief secretary of Punjab gave an outline of the funds required to incentivise farmers not to burn stubble, and said the state had a lot of debt, the judge was furious. “You are the administrative head of a state,” Mishra said. “You should say that you are willing to take action. If you cannot provide the funds, you should vacate the chair. This shows lack of willpower.”

The court told the bureaucrat that the state was not bankrupt. “You are running a government but don’t have money for poor farmers? If you are not diverting funds, don’t think courts are powerless.”

‘We do not want to know your name’

Mishra told the chief secretary of Haryana to “mobilise the entire machinery” over the next week and “spend as much money as required” to purchase stubble. “Precious time is being lost as regards preparing the field for the next crop.”

When the bureaucrat said gram sabha meetings were being held to sensitise villagers about the harm caused by crop burning, Mishra said: “Sensitising is happening now? You are worse than Punjab..they sensitised starting January, you are doing it now.”

When Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary Rajendra Kumar Tiwari began submissions by mentioning his name, the judges directed their ire at him, The Indian Express reported. “We do not want to know your name,” said the bench. “We do not want any lecture. What is the road map?”

When the bureaucrat said Chief Minister Adityanath was reviewing the situation, the bench said: “CM or PM, we are not interested in names. We are interested in actual work only.”

The court also criticised Delhi Chief Secretary Vijay Kumar Dev. “You cannot deal with road dust, not with construction demolition, not with garbage dumping,” Bar and Bench quoted the judges as saying. “Why are you in the chair? This is the capital city of India. It cannot be ignored like this.”

The court ordered Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to pay small and marginal farmers an incentive of Rs 100 per quintal to handle the residue of non-Basmati rice crops, ANI reported.

The judges ordered the Delhi government to formulate an action plan within three weeks to tackle garbage dumping and road dust, Bar and Bench reported. They also gave the Centre three months to prepare a road map to protect the interests of farmers. The court said the states should provide tools and machines to small and marginal farmers free of cost. It called for the road map to be implemented across the country.