The Supreme Court used strong words while admonishing the Modi government over the use of petroleum coke (petcoke) in industries and a "delay" in banning the import of the toxic fuel, which causes far more air pollution than coal.
India is the world's largest importer of petcoke, surpassing China which has slowed down its intake of the industrial fuel. India's import went from around 2.54 Million Tonnes of petcoke in 2012-13 to 11.13 million tonnes in 2016-17.
"Let's be clear about something, the people of this country are more important for us than anything," the court said, The Hindu reported.
"What is more important for you? Saving lives of people or industry?" Justice Madan B. Lokur asked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, represented by Additional Solicitor General A.N.S. Nadkarni.
Last year, Associated Press reported that U.S. oil refineries that are unable to sell petcoke at home are exporting vast quantities of it to India instead. A 63-year-old resident of Delhi told AP, "My life is finished... My lungs are finished."
In April 2017, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), recommended the ban of petcoke in the National Capital Region (NCR). In October, the Supreme Court had upheld the ban on use of petcoke in Delhi as well as the neighbouring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In December, the Supreme Court had permitted the use of petcoke as feedstock by cement industrial units in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, Live Law reported. Lime industries are also exempt from the October ban.
The Supreme Court is pushing for a nationwide ban on the use of petcoke, which is cheaper than coke, but has sulphur content that is twice as high, making it one of the worst air pollutants. The matter arises from a 1985 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by environmentalist M.C. Mehta on the issue of air pollution in the Delhi-NCR, Press Trust of India reported.
Justice Lokur said, "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," he said.
Lokur said, "People are not supposed to breathe anymore or what?"
India's leading environmentalist Sunita Narain has said, "We should not become the dust bin of the rest of the world...We certainly can't afford it; we're choking to death already."
The Ministry of Environment told the Supreme Court that it would undertake a study before banning the import of petcoke, Livemint reported.
The Ministry of Petroleum is against the use of petcoke, the Supreme Court was told.
An amicus curiae said, "When the Ministry of Petroleum is saying 'please stop import of petcoke', the Environment Ministry is not concerned. This report filed by the Ministry of Environment is an 'Alice in Wonderland' report. They are employing delay tactics."
Nadkarni, the government lawyer, said, "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."
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