The 40-Year Battle to Clean Delhi’s Air

Pollution in Delhi has been a long-standing issue that has captured global attention. For over four decades, the Indian Supreme Court has played a crucial role in addressing this problem and implementing measures to improve the air quality in the capital. However, despite its efforts, Delhi’s pollution levels have continued to worsen, raising questions about the effectiveness of the court’s decisions and the need for collaborative solutions.

Since 1984, the Supreme Court has been actively involved in cases related to Delhi’s pollution. It began with environmentalist MC Mehta’s pleas on vehicular pollution, the impact on the Taj Mahal, and the pollution of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Over the years, the court has expanded the scope of these petitions and addressed newer issues, including the smog problem and vehicular pollution.

One of the court’s most drastic measures was the order in 1998 to switch the entire fleet of public transport vehicles running on diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG) by 2001. Despite initial opposition from the government, fines and the fear of being held in contempt ensured compliance. The shift to CNG did have a positive impact on the air quality, but it was short-lived due to the surge in private vehicles in the city.

Critics have raised concerns about the court’s extensive involvement in executive actions. Some argue that it takes on the role of a policymaker, lawmaker, public educator, and super administrator, potentially overstepping its boundaries. This has led to the exclusion of the voices and interests of poor workers affected by the court’s decisions.

While supporters of the court believe in its interventionist approach, others question the efficacy of its decisions. For example, the court’s directive to install smog towers in the capital back in 2019 lacked scientific evidence and ultimately proved ineffective. Despite these criticisms, there are those who acknowledge the positive impact of some of the court’s interventions on the ground.

However, experts emphasize the need for collaboration and the involvement of lower courts or specialized tribunals to enforce existing environmental laws. India already has numerous laws in place to protect the environment, but their enforcement often falls short. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s attention to pollution cases appears to be seasonal, coinciding with the peaks in air pollution, raising concerns about consistency in addressing the issue.

In conclusion, the Indian Supreme Court’s 40-year battle to clean Delhi’s air has been marked by both successes and challenges. While its interventions have brought about important changes, such as the shift to CNG, the growing pollution levels in Delhi indicate the need for a more comprehensive and collaborative approach involving government leadership, enforcement of existing laws, and the inclusion of all affected stakeholders.