This photo taken on October 16, 2017 shows paddy crop stubble smouldering in a field in Sonipat in the northern Indian state of Haryana. (Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court Friday appointed retired apex court judge Justice Madan B Lokur as a one-man committee to take steps for preventing stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh which is a source of pollution in Delhi-national capital region (NCR).

While directing that National Cadet Corps (NCC), National Service Scheme and Bharat Scouts be deployed for assisting the panel, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde rejected the objection of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on the appointment of the committee saying the concerned states have already been heard.

The apex court directed the court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) and chief secretaries of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh to assist the Lokur panel to enable physical surveillance of fields where stubble is burnt.

“We just want that people of Delhi-NCR can breath fresh air without any pollution,” said the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.

Mehta, who appeared for the Centre, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, told the bench that they may have “some reservation” over appointment of the one-man committee and urged that the EPCA should be the monitoring authority for preventing stubble burning.

“We must not trouble Justice Lokur,” Mehta said, urging the bench to post the matter for hearing after Dusherra vacation on this issue.

He said no notices were issued to the Centre and the concerned states on the issue of appointment of a committee.

“We have not given some extraordinary power to Justice Lokur,” the bench said, adding, “We have heard the states and you (Mehta) were not there when we were dictating order for half an hour”.

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, who also appeared for the Centre, told the bench that the court may select the committee member from a panel of names.

The top court directed the states concerned to provide adequate security, secretarial infrastructure and transport to Lokur panel.

It said the panel shall submit its report on stubble burning fortnightly to the apex court.

During his tenure as an apex court judge, Justice Lokur had dealt with pollution matter which included the aspect of stubble burning.

The bench was hearing a plea filed by one Aditya Dubey who has raised concern over pollution caused due to stubble burning.

During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, senior advocate Vikas Singh, appearing for the petitioner, told the bench that a one-man commission headed by Justice (retd) Lokur be constituted as he has the experience in dealing with environment issues.

The bench observed it has no problem in appointing a commission and asked Singh to take consent of Justice (retd) Lokur.

Singh later told the bench that he has talked to Justice (retd) Lokur and he is ready.

“Is there NCC, Bharat scouts which can be mobilized for the purpose?,” the bench asked.

“Do have NCC battalion. Why can’t NCC go and see who is lighting fire,” the bench asked the counsel representing Haryana.

Senior advocate P S Narasimha, appearing for Punjab, said that pollution in Delhi is not attributable to Punjab.

“The state has taken numerous steps to check air pollution. Punjab historically was wheat growing state,” he said.

However, the bench said, “You don’t go into all these things, we just want to know whether you have sufficient NCC”.

Narasimha said they have eight nodal officers who go and check farm fires.

He raised concern that statutory bodies under the law are side-lined and appointed bodies or commission takes a front seat and keeps on giving directions.

“We are not saying anything about EPCA or some other person,” the bench said.

“Accordingly, we find that the suggestion of Vikas Singh that a former judge of this court who is aware of the problem in Punjab, UP and Haryana can be appointed. We appoint Justice Lokur to act as the one-man committee to prevent stubble warning,” the bench said.

The bench directed that team, which is already existing in Punjab for controlling stubble burning, can seek direction from Lokur committee.

The bench, which posted the matter for hearing on October 26, said that authorities including the EPCA shall report to the Lokur panel.

The bench also directed that Uttar Pradesh be made a party in the case.

On October 6, the apex court had sought responses from the Centre and others on the plea which has sought directions to ban stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana which causes massive air pollution in the national capital in winters.

The petition contended that stubble burning contributes almost 40 per cent of air pollution in Delhi.

The PIL has referred to a Harvard University study that air pollution may now be an important factor that aggravates a mild COVID-19 infection into an acute one.

It also referred to a study of the Louisiana State University, which found that increased air pollution can offer a direct pathway for airborne transmission of COVID-19.

The plea has claimed that consequences of allowing any stubble burning to take place amid the ongoing pandemic may be catastrophic.

It has sought directions to state governments to stop stubble burning and also fix a ceiling on rental of stubble removing machines during September to January 2021.