By appointing a retired member of the highest judiciary as the head of an important panel despite him dissing his successors openly, the first Bench of the Supreme Court perhaps sought to send a message of confidence and independence to its critics. The normally soft-spoken Justice Madan B Lokur’s ‘F’ grade for the SC’s performance under Chief Justice of India S A Bobde on the migrant exodus amid the pandemic had created a big buzz.
While brother judge S K Kaul had quickly hit back saying the after-me-the-deluge attitude of former judges would harm the institution, Justice Lokur’s critique had resonated with many people. Yet, a Bench headed by the CJI on Friday readily accepted a petitioner’s suggestion to appoint him as head of a panel to curb stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and west Uttar Pradesh, which poisons Delhi-NCR’s lungs and makes it unlivable year after year in winter.
According to a Harvard study, stubble burning doubles Delhi’s pollution. It can also exacerbate mild Covid cases, hence the CJI’s urgency. Multiple interventions in the past by the SC, including setting up an Environment Pollution Control Authority five years ago, haven’t made the situation better. The Bench’s decision surprised the executive, as the Additional Solicitor General first tried to block it and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta made rearguard efforts to buy time, but the CJI did not budge.
Whether or not Justice Lokur’s recent stinging rebuke of the executive weaponising the sedition law by twisting freedom of speech or his heading a panel of eminent citizens to probe the Delhi riots had anything to do with the Centre’s discomfort, its shock was evident. He was also among the four top SC judges who had revolted in 2018 against then CJI Dipak Misra’s skewed allocation of cases.
As for the retired judge, he has experience in handling environmental litigations. As it is, stubble burning has already started. Issuing sharp, speaking orders from the judicial pulpit is one thing but getting them implemented on the ground where livelihood issues are at stake is completely different. That is where Justice Lokur’s ability will now be tested. For Delhi’s sake, we wish him godspeed.