India’s SC orders ‘work from home’ over pollution in capital

Published November 16, 2021
Men walk along a field as stubble burning smoke rises, in Gharaunda in the northern state of Haryana, India, November 9. — Reuters
Men walk along a field as stubble burning smoke rises, in Gharaunda in the northern state of Haryana, India, November 9. — Reuters

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court told authorities on Monday to shut offices in the capital and nearby cities, allowing millions to work from home as officials seek ways to reduce hazardous air pollution that led to the closure of schools.

Its action came after city authorities in New Delhi, which has been battling a toxic haze since early Nov­ember, took emergency measures on Saturday, ordering the closure of schools and building work for four days. “We direct the centre and states of the national capital region to imp­ose work from home for the meantime,” said Chief Justice N. V. Ram­ana, head of a panel of three judges considering a petition by a city resident.

The court also sought urgent steps to rein in crop waste fires in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, set by hundreds of thousands of farmers looking to clear fields for a new sowing season.

“We want action on the issue,” said Justice Surya Kant. Although the court did not set a deadline for the action by authorities, it will next take up the pollution issue on Wednesday.

India’s efforts to reduce the burning of crop waste, a major source of air pollution during winter, have had little benefit, despite its expenditure of billions of rupees over the past four years. An index of air quality stood at 343 on a scale of 500 in Delhi on Monday, a sign of “very poor” conditions that can cause respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.

The capital experienced severe conditions late last week as temperatures dropped and the index reached 499.

The Supreme Court also ordered measures to halt vehicle traffic that is not essential, cut industrial pollution and limit dust.

Contributors to the poor air quality in Delhi, often ranked the world’s most polluted capital, include coal-fired plants outside the city as well as the burning of garbage in the open.

The Delhi government pushed back on Monday against a call by India’s top court to declare a “pollution lockdown”, as children stayed away from school for a week because of dangerous smog levels. Air quality in Delhi — among the world’s most polluted cities — regularly plummets to the “severe” category in winter with levels of harmful particulates at dangerous levels.In a submission to the court on Monday, the city government said that such a step would only be “meaningful” if states surrounding Delhi are also included.

One of the contributors to the smog that hangs over the city in winter is smoke from farmers burning their crop residue in neighbouring states.

Delhi is also ringed by several satellite cities like Noida and Ghaziabad that are home to millions of people.

“Given Delhi’s compact size, a lockdown would have limited impact on the air quality regime,” the Delhi government said.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2021

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