AS a thick layer of smog smothers the Delhi-NCR region and the cause and blame for this public health emergency are discussed threadbare, we need to ask ourselves if the legal and regulatory regime is sufficient to address this environmental crisis and if the public too must bear responsibility in cleaning up the air that we breathe.
Even as the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) – constituted in 1998 in compliance with a Supreme Court judgement –declared a “public health emergency” in the region till November 5, on that very day, the air quality index (AQI) had dipped to “severe-plus” category – a new low, the main causes being stubble burning, vehicular emission, dust from construction sites, firecrackers and depleting forest cover.
The most alarming and immediate effect of air pollution is on health. As per the survey of the Centre for Science and Environment report, life expectancy in India has gone down by 2.6 years due to the multiple effects of air pollution on our health.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study released in 2018 said more than 60,000 children under the age of 5 years and more than 4,000 children between the age of 5-14 years died due to air pollution in 2016. Another WHO report, listed 13 Indian cities in the global list of most polluted cities of the world.
Multiple stakeholders, good intentions
In India, air pollution is a trans-boundary issue, not just limited to metropolitans and industrial hubs. Pollutants disperse across urban and rural areas and across political and administrative jurisdictions. This is why EPCA chief Bhure Lal had to write to the Chief Secretaries of Government of National Capital Territory-Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, asking them to shut down all coal and other fuel-based industries which had not shifted to natural gas or agro-based residue.
The first legal instrument to curb air pollution was enacted as the Air (Prevention and Control) Pollution Act, 1981. Its implementation has, however, remained weak. The Supreme Court has heard petitions on a variety of issues related to air pollution from more than three decades now and has passed several important directions but to little or no avail.
In March 1991, the apex court observed that laws and funds alone were not enough for addressing air pollution and that it called for strategic planning. In July 1998, the court while accepting the recommendations of the Bhure Lal Committee report directed the complete conversion of Delhi public transport to CNG.
In Aril 2002, the court refused to extend time for phasing out diesel run public transport buses and laid down several guidelines for an automobile fuel policy for the government to consider. Finally, on October 24, 2018, the apex court ruled that no Bharat Stage (Indian emission standards) IV compliant vehicles could be sold or registered from April 1, 2020, thus ensuring that India would shift from Bharat Stage IV to Bharat Stage VI uniformly.
Then on October 29, 2018, the Supreme Court, recognizing the need for urgent action to control air pollution in Delhi-NCR, directed the following actions:
- The Transport Departments of NCR will immediately announce that all the diesel vehicles more than 10 years’ old and petrol vehicles more than 15 years’ old shall not ply in NCR in terms of the order of the National Green Tribunal dated 07.04.2015.
- Central Pollution Control Board will immediately create a social media account on which the citizens may lodge their complaint directly to be acted upon by the Task Force responsible for implementation of Graded Response Action Plan
- EPCA is permitted to take pre-emptive steps under the Graded Response Action Plan without strict adherence to pollution stages delineated in the plan.
The latest direction is that of November 4, 2019, where the apex court once again issued a slew of instructions to curb air pollution. These include:
- District Collectors and police officials to ensure that no further stubble burning takes place
- Ban on construction and demolition activities in Delhi-NCR and penalty of Rs 1 lakh for violator
- Stop on coal-based industries
A national framework – National Clean Air Progamme (NCAP) – for air quality management was launched by the Central Government on January 10, 2019. However, it did not achieve any significant results as its recommendation remained advisory and there has been a lack of coordination between various actors.
Despite the Constitutional directives, special laws and Supreme Court guidelines, the government (both at the Central and State levels) failed to regulate and control the quality of the air we breathe.
What about the public?
But it cannot be the government alone that can be held responsible. The general public has also failed making lifestyle changes that are crucial to cleaning up the environment. Public action is critical now.
The pollutants – PM2.5 and PM10 – which have the most serious and immediate impacts are local air pollutants could be prevented through collective change in social behavior. Simple solution, if adopted by the public, can play an instrumental role in reducing severe air pollution. These societal changes include:
- Support for public transport, carpooling and biking
- Shift to much cleaner fuel of CNG from petrol and diesel vehicles
- Adoption of eco-friendly waste management practices
- Efficient energy consumption
- Plantation and afforestation
In Delhi-NCR region one major factor responsible for declining air quality is stubble burning in the neighboring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The government and farmers must come to an agreement on methods for disposing off the stubble.