India’s top court tells states to stop burning crops as New Delhi’s air becomes dangerous

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered authorities in states surrounding New Delhi to ban farmers from burning crop residues as air quality was worsened by the most polluted smog in the past week capital of the world reached dangerous levels.

Air quality declines each year before winter, when calm and cold winds trap pollutants from sources such as vehicles, industry, construction dust and the burning of agricultural waste.

The court has issued similar orders in recent years, but with limited effect as state authorities report being unable to control the burning despite fines and sometimes because of farmers’ hostility toward officials.

Delhi has halted on-site construction, closed primary schools until November 10 and will introduce restrictions on vehicle use next week to combat pollution, but wants its neighboring states to control burning of crop residues.

As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the real-time air quality index was at 306, a level classified as “dangerous” by Swiss group IQAir.

“We direct the state government of Punjab and adjoining states of Delhi – Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – to ensure that burning of crop residue is stopped immediately,” Supreme Court Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana commonly burn crop stubble left after the rice harvest in late October or early November to quickly clear their fields before planting wheat.

This practice has been going on for years and the resulting smoke is typically responsible for 30 to 40% of Delhi’s air pollution in October and November, according to the federal government’s air quality monitoring agency SAFAR.

The federal and state governments are offering subsidies for better harvesters and stubble breakers to support farmers and make them aware of the dangers of this practice, which has declined over the years but is still a major problem.

Justice Kaul gave the local police station the responsibility of ensuring that the court’s directions are followed, under the supervision of the state chief secretary.

The court also suggested a gradual shift from growing rice, also known as rice, to less water-intensive alternative crops.

“The transition can only happen if the minimum support price is not granted for rice but with an alternative crop – something that the (federal) government is already trying to promote,” Justice Kaul said.

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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