People are more important than industries, the Supreme Court said on Monday while taking note of a report that 60,000 people have died due to pollution.
The top court, which was hearing matters arising out of a 1985 PIL filed by environmentalist M C Mehta on the issue of air pollution in the Delhi-NCR, asked whether the government had allowed pet coke import without studying its impact on the people's health.
A bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta also pulled up the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for seeking time to study the impact of ban on import of pet coke used in industries as fuel.
"You seem very keen to allow the import of pet coke. Were you earlier allowing import of pet coke in the country without even conducting the study? The other day newspapers reports said that 60,000 people died due to pollution. What are you doing? People are dying in the city due to huge amount of pollution," the bench said.
"We don't know whether the newspaper report is correct or a fake news. But your reports have also earlier indicated that people have lost lives due to pollution," it said.
Additional Solicitor General A N S Nadkarni, appearing for the MoEF said a report of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) says "the Ministry is over-enthusiastic but it is not correct. What's wrong in conducting the study and having a discussion with them (EPCA)?"
To this, the bench said "Let us be very clear. The people of this country are more important than the industries".
Advocate Aparajita Singh, who is the amicus curiae in the case, said the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) supported the ban on import of pet coke, but the MoEF was opposing it.
"The MoEF report is like an 'Alice in Wonderland report'. MoPNG is coming forward, but MoEF is not bothered. Now they say they want to further study the impact," she said.
She alleged that the MoEF's stand on conducting the study was the reason for "delaying the ban on import of pet coke a fuel used in industries which is a cause of pollution".
Nadkarni urged the court to give at least two days to prepare the report while agreeing that MoPNG was supporting the ban on import of pet coke.
The bench then asked Nadkarni "What is more important for you, saving the lives of the people or the industry?"
The law officer replied, "We also consider that life of people is more important than the industries but there will be no harm if we come up with a detailed report. There are various situations in which pet coke is used in industries and not every scenario is a cause of pollution".
The ASG said every ban has to be based on some rules after conducting proper study by experts or else the decision can be challenged in the courts.
"It's not that the MoEF is more interested in importing pet coke," he said.
Singh intervened and said that MoPNG says it wants to regulate pet coke import while it is surprising that the MoEF has taken a stand that it is "not bothered".
The bench then directed MoEF to have a meeting with EPCA during the week and inform the court about the expert committee report.
On May 10, the apex court had set a deadline of June 30 this year for the Centre to decide on the issue of banning import of pet coke and said the government's failure on this count would compel it to pass a direction.
The court also asked the government to consider implementing the ambitious National Clean Air Programme in Delhi first as the people here were "struggling" due to pollution. The NCAP is aimed at tackling the air pollution problem in 100 cities across the country.
The Centre had then told the apex court that discussions were underway on the issue of banning the import of pet coke and it would take around six weeks to take a decision.