The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will look into suggestions of withholding a portion of Minimum Support Price from farmers till it is confirmed that they are not indulging in stubble burning, Live Law reported. The court was hearing a public interest litigation on air pollution in Delhi NCR.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that fiddling with the MSP may not be in the best interest of the farmers and added that the Centre will file a reply to the suggestion.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde was hearing a petition filed by farmer Vikram Tongad urging the court to ensure an alternative incentive mechanism for controlling stubble burning. Tongad suggested that the MSP payment can be deferred until it is verified that no stubble has been burnt. He also asked for “Happy Seeder” machines, which mechanically removes the stubble, to be mandatorily given to farmers either for free or on subsidised prices, the Hindustan Times reported.

The bench then asked if the smoke from the stubble will kill the coronavirus. “It will actually aggravate the virus,” senior advocate Vikas Singh replied. Senior advocate Siddharth Bhatnagar also submitted that the stubble will worsen the coronavirus transmission.

Senior Advocate Shyam Divan said he has filed another application, suggesting the replication of measures taken to control forest fires for stubble burning.

“For forest fire, there is already a system, by which satellite imageries are captured, and messages are sent to the concerned forest officials for remedial measures. Why can’t such measures be adopted with respect to stubble burning? The second suggestion is that a portion of Minimum Support Price should be withheld to verify if the farmer has indulged in stubble burning.”

— Shyam Divan

Advocate Charanpal Singh Bagri, appearing for farmers, objected to the suggestion of withholding the MSP. He said that on November 5, 2019, the top court had said in its order that compensation should be given to those small and marginal farmers who refrain from burning farm residue.

The court then posted the matter for hearing on October 16.

Along with the petition, the court heard two other applications in connection with the environmental pollution in the Delhi-NCR region.

On a plea filed by Aditya Dubey, an environmental activist and Class 12 student, and law student Aman Banka, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, according to NDTV. The plea has sought directions to give free-of-cost stubble removing machines to small and marginal farmers in order to help them keep a check on high particulate matters in the air.

The petition said that stubble burning contributes 40% of air pollution in the Capital. The petition referred to two separate studies conducted by Harvard University and Louisiana State University. While the first pointed out that air pollution can aggravate mild Covid-19 cases into serious ones, the latter revealed that air pollution can help in the airborne transmission of the coronavirus.

“Thus, any increase in the air pollution levels of Delhi-NCR this year while the Covid-19 pandemic is spiralling out of control will exponentially increase the mortality rates due to Covid-19, compromising the respiratory system of the citizens, more so in case of senior citizens and children,” the plea said.

The Supreme Court also posted the matter for hearing on October 16 and asked the chief secretaries of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh to be present on the day. “The court must ask them as to why despite repeated assurances in the past, stubble burning continues to happen?” it said.

“It is an important issue or else the whole air will go bad,” the bench said.

Last year’s observations

The air quality of Delhi-NCR typically deteriorates in the winter. In November last year, the court had passed a slew of directions to check air pollution. The court had 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. It had also 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.

The judges had ordered the Delhi government to formulate an action plan within three weeks to tackle garbage dumping and road dust. 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.