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Supreme Court exposes political lack of will in curbing stubble burning

Supreme Court exposes political lack of will in curbing stubble burning

The Indian Supreme Court covered in smog, New Delhi. PTI

On Wednesday, November 8 this year, Punjab witnessed 2,003 parali or stubble burning fires. Two days earlier, on November 5, that figure was as high as 3,230. Miraculously, on November 9, parali burning incidents had dropped to a new low of 639. What could have been the reason for this drastic reduction? Did the Punjab government suddenly wake up and decide to take action? Or, did the farmers have an unexpected change of heart? Or, was it the Central government that finally decided to take the matter into its own hands and crack the whip?

The answer is none of these. It was the Supreme Court (SC) that on November 7 decisively intervened, and passed an order that parali burning should ‘stop forthwith’. It didn’t stop only with that. It went further and laid out a system to implement its instructions. Local police Station House Officers (SHOs) were held accountable for enforcing the order under the overall personal supervision of the Chief Secretary. By Wednesday the 8th, the Punjab government swung into action.

The police and civil authorities worked in tandem to implement the order. At least 251 FIRs were registered against non-compliant farmers under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (disobedience to order promulgated by a public authority). Fines amounting to almost Rs 90 lakh were imposed on erring farmers. About 1,309 meetings were held by SHOs with farmers to make them aware of the SC order. Commissioners and district police chiefs reinforced this with as many as 269 meetings with farmers. And 638 flying squads consisting of both civil and police officials scoured the state to enforce the ban. Fire brigades were mobilised to put out stubble fires. The results were crystal clear by the next day: the number of straw paddy-burning incidents had plummeted to less than one-third of what they were the previous day.

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Two lessons from the above are irrefutable. One, that if politicians and administrators want to implement what they have promised, it can be done. If it is not done, it is only because they are inexcusably irresponsible, and lack the will to act. More time is wasted in politicking and acrimonious blame games, state versus Centre sterile finger pointing, appeasement of electorally powerful lobbies, and the sheer laziness that comes from lack of accountability.

Two, that in the face of executive incompetence, it is the SC that is actually filling in to fulfil the people’s expectations. When it issues orders, the executive acts, and nothing better illustrates this than the above example. All the measures that authorities took subsequent to the SC ruling were already doable, and did not require the SC’s intervention. Why were they not done then?

The SC has also become the guardian in constitutional matters. This, of course, is its mandate, and the doctrine of the sacrosanct ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, is something that has time and again protected our democratic fabric. A recent example was the rampant and repeated misuse of the powers conferred on Governors. The post of a Governor is a constitutional post, above party politics. But Governors are appointed by the national ruling party, and more than often, for decades now, behave in a partisan manner in Opposition ruled states. Here Governors have sat indefinitely on Bills passed by popularly elected legislatures, noticeably in Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Telangana—all Opposition states.

The matter finally came up before the SC earlier this year, and the SC did not mince its words. It said that Governors do not have powers under Article 200 of the Constitution to indefinitely delay Bills, and observed that the Governors, who are not elected representatives, in doing so were ‘playing with fire’, their actions a matter of ‘serious concern’. Specifically on Punjab, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud observed that ‘we are not happy with what is happening in Punjab. Will we continue to be a parliamentary democracy?’. It urged Governors to do some ‘soul searching’, in order to preserve democracy.

Even in legislative matters, the SC has become the last resort against arbitrary action. As a former parliamentarian, I have great respect for the presiding officers of both the Houses, but when the Speaker of the Lok Sabha indefinitely suspended AAP MP Raghav Chadha on August 11 for moving a motion on the Delhi Services Bill, claiming the support of five proposers who later said that they had not given their consent, Chadha on 30th October sought justice from the SC.

The SC’s observations were categorical: ‘Indefinite suspension of a member of Parliament has a very serious repercussion on the right of a people to be represented by a person of their choice. He (Chadha) is a member of the Opposition. The exclusion of members from the Opposition of the House is a very serious matter because he is representative of his constituency and of the viewpoint which may not be consistent with the viewpoint of the government. We must be very careful about not excluding those voices from the Parliament.’

The short point is that in executive, legislative and constitutional matters, the SC is playing a pivotal and indispensable role in ensuring that the legitimate rights and expectations of citizens are ensured, and the basic pillars of a parliamentary democracy are not corroded by the misuse of power. This is not judicial overreach, but in the current circumstances, the need of the hour. The continued independence and impartiality of the highest court has become imperative, and we can only hope that it remains inviolable.

The author is a former diplomat, an author and a politician. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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