The Supreme Court on Wednesday pulled up the government, saying the executive was suffering from inertia and policy paralysis, and was waiting for the apex court to intervene to bring down the pollution levels in the national capital region (NCR).

The bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana said the Centre and Delhi, Haryana, and the Punjab governments should have done much more instead of urging the court to issue directions on working-from-home, carpooling, and the use of sprinklers.

“I have been observing as a judge that the bureaucracy has developed an inertia… policy paralysis, and they want this court to do everything. As if we should give directions to take a bucket, put out a fire, use sprinklers and all,” the CJI told solicitor general Tushar Mehta appearing for the government.

The bench, also comprising justices Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, and Surya Kant, said: “This is an unfortunate situation the bureaucracy has come down to. They say ‘we won’t do anything. Let the court pass directions and we will simply put signatures saying the court has directed’.”

“When Delhi is completely choked, this court is forced to step in. Tell us what have the Centre and states been doing for the remaining parts of the year? When the house is on fire, you start digging a well …just because Delhi and the adjoining areas of UP (Uttar Pradesh), Haryana, and Punjab are involved, we have to intervene. Otherwise, this is something a high court could look at,” it added.

Mehta urged the court not to issue “harsher directives”, such as making it mandatory even for central government employees to work from home or imposing a complete lockdown in Delhi-NCR. He said the Supreme Court should consider putting off any directive till 21 November as the metrological department expects the situation to improve after Sunday due to a change in the wind directions.

The bench agreed to defer its orders, but said the authorities fell short in implementing the statutory and regulatory norms related to industrial and construction activities.

On Tuesday, the top court had said the Centre and states must come up with solutions to mitigate the crisis in 24 hours. Subsequently, the Commission for Air Quality Management convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday evening between the Centre and states, before issuing directions to ban all construction work and in-person classes at schools and colleges in the National Capital Region (NCR). The commission also banned the entry of trucks in Delhi barring those carrying essential supplies, besides issuing directions to shut down six thermal power plants within a 300km radius of Delhi.

The authorities had warned of deteriorating air quality levels in the region in late October after satellite images captured a spike in farm fires. On 5 November, a day after Diwali, the air quality index shot up to 462 (severe category). Since then, it has been in severe to very poor category. “There are already norms in place (to control pollution levels), but there is no implementation. There is a lack of will,” the bench added. The Supreme Court will hear the case on 24 November.

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