"Can you permit people to die like this and make it fait accompli?", the Supreme Court said Wednesday, while blasting the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for failing to prevent severe air pollution in Delhi-NCR on account of stubble burning.
"Can you permit to go back by 100 years? It will be total chaos and total failure of the government machinery in the country," said a bench of justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta.
The bench, which blasted the chief secretaries of the three states for failing to prevent stubble burning, said it cannot tolerate this anymore and will not "spare even a single officer" responsible for this situation.
The bench did not accept the suggestions of Attorney General K K Venugopal who said that farmers are reluctant to stop stubble burning and they have no other alternative as stopping it would affect their livelihood.
Venugopal said that areas in Punjab and Haryana can be divided into zones and stubble burning can be allowed in a particular zone on a given day.
He said stubble burning in these states contributes to around 44 per cent pollution in the Delhi-NCR region.
"But why stubble burning? Why the government machinery cannot stop this? Once stubble burning is not good, it is not good. Is stubble burning the only solution? Why cannot it be collected or purchased by the government?", the bench asked.
"The government says that stubble burning is the only solution. We cannot allow this in the country. We are in a civilised country," it said.
Venugopal said that in Punjab, farmers have tried machines to remove stubble from the fields but they say that these equipments are ineffective in large areas.
He said that as far as small farmers are concerned, they say that these machines are very costly and they cannot afford them.
"You give subsidy to the farmers," the bench said, adding, "Mr Attorney, we are out rightly rejecting your suggestion. We are very sure that we will not permit this".
The bench said that the Haryana government has somehow managed to bring down the instances of stubble burning but in Punjab, authorities have failed to prevent it.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench that the Centre has been giving subsidy which is being used for the purpose of purchasing machines and the government has decided to purchase stubble for power generation and compressed biogas.
"Time has come and we are fixing responsibility on the government. You have to hauled up for law of tort also. In no country, the government can permit this... Should only farmers be held accountable. Is this the way you will act," the bench said.
The bench also questioned the three states as to why they were not prepared in advance to prevent stubble burning and expressed its anguish that state of Punjab was trying to "pass the buck" on the Centre.
When the chief secretary of Punjab said there is lack of funds as they have a debt of over Rs 2 lakh crore, the bench said that states cannot take shield and shrug of their liability towards farmers.
"How many you have in your coffers? Are you bankrupt? You have to divert funds for this otherwise the courts are not powerless," it said.
The bench warned that in case further stubble burning takes place in these states, it would haul up the entire government machinery.
It said that to prevent stubble burning, the states have to prepare a road map for future.
"If you have to survive, you will have to do something. You have to prepare a proper road map," the bench said while taking a serious note of the fact that there was no coordination among the authorities in the field of agriculture.
One of the advocates, appearing for Punjab-based farmers association, told the bench that farmers want subsidy and machines so that they do not have to burn stubble in fields.
The bench said the issue related to measures to tackle pollution should be the priority of the states as people's health and their lives are at risk.
It said the authorities have to work closely with farmers and provide them necessary assistance so that they do not indulge in stubble burning anymore.