The Supreme Court on Friday appointed retired judge Madan B Lokur to lead a committee monitoring instances of stubble burning in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in view of rising pollution levels in Delhi, reported NDTV.

“The state governments concerned will provide secretarial, security and financial facilities to this committee,” the court said, adding that the panel would submit its report in 15 days. The suggestion to appoint Justice Lokur to the panel was made by Senior Advocate Vikas Singh, who was appearing for the petitioners, according to Live Law.

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, argued against the panel, saying that a body – the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority – was already in place to handle the matter. The court, led by Chief Justice SA Bobde, however, asked if Bhati’s statement was an assurance that the problem would be solved when the court reopened. The additional solicitor general replied that the matter could be taken up after the court reopens.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, also asked the court not to order the appointment of Justice Lokur to the panel. Mehta, however, avoided giving a reason and said that he would file an application. The court refused to entertain the solicitor general’s request, saying that it has already passed the order and received the consent of the retired judge.

The three-judge bench ordered that all authorities in the states and the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority will report to Justice Lokur-led committee. It added that groups such as Bharat Scouts, National Cadet Corps, and Guides and National Service Scheme could be deployed to carry out physical surveillance of fields where stubble burning was likely to happen.

The court also recorded in its order that Punjab and Haryana have taken adequate steps to control stubble burning but more preventive steps were needed to be put in place. The two states had submitted that they have developed a mobile app that will help identify and notify the field where stubble burning took place.

The next hearing on the case has been scheduled for October 26.

The order came on a plea filed by Aditya Dubey, an environmental activist and Class 12 student, and law student Aman Banka, which had sought steps to stop stubble burning. The plea had also 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 had said that stubble burning contributes 40% of air pollution in the Capital. It had 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.

The air quality index of Delhi was 242 at 1.55 pm, according to government-run monitoring agency System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research. The AQI was in the “poor category” for six consecutive days after it began to decline on October 7 for the first time in over three months. It deteriorated to the “very poor” category for the first time this season on Tuesday.

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.