New Delhi: Government inaction and stubble burning in Punjab are the real culprits in robbing 20 million Delhi'ites of three years of their life expectancy, which amounts to "genocide" and "murder", Delhi High Court said on Thursday.
"It is killing us," a bench of justices Badar Durrez Ahmed and Ashutosh Kumar said, adding that the grave situation was leading to the "decimation" of more than 60 million life years or one million deaths.
It also asked whether votes were more important than the lives of those who vote.
The bench made the serious observation while referring to a recent environment study published in a weekly.
"As per the report, air pollution in a city like Delhi deducts three years from your life expectancy. Delhi has a population of over 20 million. So 60 million life years are being decimated and killed. It is akin to one million deaths. If this is not murder, what is? This is genocide.
"Government inaction is the culprit for shortening of life. Look at the enormity of the matter. Something drastic needs to be done. Is vote bank more important or the man or woman behind the vote," it said, adding "Punjab (stubble burning) is killing us".
The court said as per various reports, Delhi has been termed as the worst city in India in terms of air quality.
Bad air quality not only kills people, but also leads to respiratory ailments, the court said and added that these led to reduction in working population and loss of productivity.
"In pure economic terms, look at the cost-benefit you would have if this issue of air pollution is addressed," the bench said while hearing a PIL initiated by the court on the issue of air pollution in the city.
Last month, while hearing the air pollution matter, the high court had asked the states of UP, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana to prevent stubble burning for which the national capital every year grappled with the menace of haze even after orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to stop the practice of burning of crop and agriculture residue.
Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), meanwhile, showed the court satellite images from NASA showing the extent of biomass or crop burning in northern India.
Referring to the images, the bench and amicus curiae Kailash Vasdev said the main culprit was Punjab where majority of fires were happening.
Vasdev said that while Haryana and Rajasthan have taken steps like training farmers, employing new tools for cutting crops, recycling the biomass and using it for power generation, Punjab was only asking for money.
He also said that as per Punjab's affidavit, it was bringing in political issues and angles as well as citing economic constraints in preventing biomass burning.
Agreeing with the amicus, the bench also said the state appeared to be "in denial" even though the extent of biomass burning was "much, much more" there than in other states, with resultant smoke reaching as far as Madhya Pradesh.
The bench then asked the counsel for Punjab how it would apologise to the people who have died and those who continue to suffer respiratory diseases due to air pollution caused by biomass burning.
The court also asked how the state would make good the huge national economic loss that would have been caused due to closure of schools in Delhi and people falling sick and not being able to work.
"You have failed as a state," the bench remarked while referring to Punjab waiving off agricultural loans of over Rs 80000 crore, but being unable to arrange Rs 9900 crore for procuring "rota and re-seeding machines" to reduce biomass generated after harvesting.
The counsel for Punjab, while defending the state, said the government may have been slow to start but it has taken steps like setting up biomass power plants.
He said the state required around Rs 9900 crore for the machines and has written to the Centre.
Rejecting the contentions, the bench said it had warned all the states well in advance on these issues.
"But you (Punjab) did nothing. There is dereliction of duty. Does your Chief Secretary intend to continue in that position? We are contemplating issuing contempt notice to him. You can reply to that," the court said and added "put a stop to it immediately".
It also said that despite the advance warning, "damage has been done" and the actions of Punjab was akin to "capital punishment" for the people of Delhi.
"Literally capital punishment as the capital is punished and that too for no offence. People are being killed in the capital," the bench said.
Earlier, the high court had noted that stubble burning, which is not permissible under the law, was going on despite the orders of NGT and HC. "This practice has gone unabated year after year and Delhi has been engulfed in haze, constituents of which are aerosols from stubble burning and dust".
It had said that effects of pollution were felt by every citizen, particularly the elderly and children who experienced difficulty in breathing, and it manifested itself in long term effect like "reduction in longevity".
Expressing hope that the law and court orders would be followed in letter and spirit, the bench had directed the four states to file status reports regarding action taken by them to ensure stubble burning practice is eliminated.
The court was hearing a PIL initiated by it on the issue of air pollution in the national capital and had asked the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab about their action plan to stop the practice of stubble burning, undertaken by farmers to clear the fields before sowing the next crop after Diwali.
Punjab government, represented by advocate Naginder Benipal, had said immediate action was required by Haryana as it was much closer to Delhi. Haryana government had said it has already started taking action in compliance with the orders of NGT.
Rajasthan government said its Chief Secretary has held meetings on how to deal with the issue and said the pollution control board of the state should also be made a party.
DPCC, represented by advocate Sanjeev Ralli, had said that directions were given by NGT to these states last year itself to stop stubble burning, so let them also show what they have done so far.
The bench, thereafter, had said that any action taken by the states can be seen from the air quality data collected by the 20 monitoring stations in Delhi run by DPCC, Central Pollution Control Board and Ministry of Earth Sciences.
It had directed all the three agencies "to ensure that data is recorded for entire month of October and November 2016 and a comparative chart be placed before us comparing current year data with previous year and also comparing with August and September months of 2016".