People whose petitions brought about key environmental rulings look back at the way the capital, having once become a model for fighting air pollution, went downhill from there
Retired Justice Kuldip Singh became known as the “green judge” after he presided over a number of PILs on environmental issues. Till his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1996, he passed crucial judgments on air pollution, including specifying norms for industries around the Taj Mahal. Excerpts from the Interview:
Has Delhi frittered away the benefits of the CNG ruling of 1998?
It is very apparent that pollution levels have soared in Delhi. In the little travel I do around Delhi, I return to Chandigarh with allergic asthma. This is very sad because particulate matter levels had seen a very clear dip after the first-generation reforms. Now, the air has actually become like poison.
Who do you hold responsible for the deterioration in air quality?
There has been complete laxity on part of the government in holding on to the benefits. The last government in Delhi for three terms, and at the Centre, did nothing despite so much data from so many organisations warning about deteriorating air quality. Post-2005, there are more than five million registered vehicles in Delhi, and there will be a million more unregistered ones. More importantly, 55-60% of them run on diesel. A lot of small-scale industries have come up. I am told a few stone-crushing units too are back.
How do you evaluate the role of the judiciary in monitoring pollution control measures in NCR since the 1990s?
It is unfortunate that the courts have not been as active in the last decade. I think there is a need to sensitise judges on environmental protection laws. You cannot leave everything on one judge on the National Green Tribunal panel. How much can he do? Until the 1990s, the judiciary was extremely active, and the biggest judgments to benefit the environment came from the Supreme Court, not from the government — moving hazardous industries and stone-crushing units outside the city, monitoring the forest cover.
The Justice Verma bench conducted almost daily hearings on the green cover, ordering that a boundary be constructed around the ridge area. The court monitored the cleaning of the Yamuna, and took steps to reduce air pollution around Delhi, Mathura and Agra. Whatever good was done for improving air quality had been initiated by the courts. But after 2005, I am sad to see the judiciary has not been as active. The district courts, high courts and the Supreme Court should intervene and participate in environment protection once again in the capital.
What is the road ahead?
There is no doubt that the previous governments have done nothing in the last 10-15 years. This government at the Centre has promised development, but what about sustainable development? If we fill this earth to bursting point, where will the 6 billion of today or the 9-10 billion of tomorrow go? Unfortunately, there is no other planet we can move to.
I hope this government takes up this issue on a war footing. For example, if you cannot stop people from buying more cars, at least regulate the number of cars on the road. Cities like San Diego and Singapore have done it.
The government should also regulate polluting industries, control the trucks entering Delhi, take up cleaning of the Yamuna. If there is a will there is a way, but the government in the last decade had no will to do anything.