Air quality management is the answer

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Air quality management is the answer

Tuesday, 03 November 2020 | SNEHASHIS MITTRA

Enacting laws sans assessment only leads to diverting attention from long-term comprehensive solutions to short-term myopic interventions

A legislation on air quality management in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) is perhaps an idea whose time has come. With the Supreme Court hot on its heels on the issue of air pollution, the Central Government has taken a holistic view of the matter. A new law will seek to put a permanent statutory body in place with participants from the affected States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and, of course, Delhi to reduce air pollution in contiguous areas. Delhi’s air quality has been in the “very poor” category and is predicted to remain so till the end of winter. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s satellite imagery also showed a very dense cluster of fires in Punjab, Haryana and nearby regions. Air pollution in urban areas arises from multiple sources, which may vary with location and developmental activities. Anthropogenic activities, such as rampant industrialisation, exploitation and overconsumption of natural resources and the ever-growing population size, are major contributors to air pollution.

The Delhi-NCR region bears the brunt of farmland fires that contribute heavily to the annual air pollution crisis. Dense smoke billows from smouldering paddy fields, which are set on fire to prepare the ground for sowing the next crop. The smoke rises and settles over vast swathes of north and north-west India. Coupled with local emissions and dust, it has in recent years turned cities into what the apex court once described as “gas chambers.”

According to data compiled by the Union Agriculture Ministry, Punjab accounted for 82 per cent of the stubble burning cases, besides Haryana and UP, between October 1and 23. This contributed heavily to the foul air choking Delhi-NCR.

In a recent order, the top court had ordered the deployment of the National Cadet Corps, National Service Scheme and Bharat Scouts and Guides for assisting in the monitoring of crop residue burning in the  fields of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi-NCR, saying all it wants is that the “people can breathe fresh air without any pollution.”

The law intends to address the issue of multiplicity of authorities that hampers coordinated action, though it has to address State jurisdictions involved in implementing steps. There are enough laws to deal with the situation, experts feel, saying multiplicity of institutions and overlapping laws may end up creating even more confusion and friction.

Both the Centre and the States have enough powers under the existing laws and more than any new legislation, there has to be actual action on pollution sources while implementing existing rules and regulations effectively, say experts.

As of now, the Central Government has been using its powers under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 in order to issue directions to control pollution. Both the State and Centre have enough powers under existing laws — the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 — to take preventive and remedial measures to deal with air pollution. In case the Centre intends to enact a law regulating farming practice, it will have to ensure that it does not encroach upon the domain reserved for the State. Agriculture is  a State subject while the environment is in the Concurrent List. In case it directly impacts agricultural practices, it is likely to face both social opposition as well as legal challenges, say  environmental experts, who rue that the Supreme Court, Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) may not be that clear as to what needs to be done. They say that if the Government is keen on resolving the issue, it must undertake a thorough review of the various laws and institutions in order to look at their efficacy and utility.

Enacting laws or issuing directions without any assessment and consultation only ends up as a way to divert attention from long-term comprehensive solutions to short-term myopic interventions.

“The problem lies in the fact that political will is missing when it comes to implementation. Having said that, it will be a welcome step if there is a specific provision to deal with crop residue burning at the national level. It should not be left alone as a problem in Punjab and Haryana only. Satellite images from central and southern India show the extent of crop waste burning in these parts as well, which have an impact on local climate resilience,” says Polash Mukerjee, Air Quality Researcher.

There is no dearth of power under the law, the question is of adherence, says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Environment.

The moot question, according to former counsel for the CPCB in the Supreme Court Vijay Panjwani, is what action the Centre can take if the State fails to follow the directions?

A report by Beijing-based policy think tank, Bluetech Clean Air Alliance (BCAA), released in June 2019, had said that China faced a similar problem and the Chinese Government started to show strong political commitment in tackling the issue from the highest levels, which is widely considered to be a key factor for the success of such measures. “Political commitments from the State Governments are also required to ensure they are transformed into solid actions. Effective air quality management requires science-based policy-making, analysing scientific assessments, data monitoring, emissions inventory, air quality modelling, source apportionment studies and transport planning. China’s lessons showed that significant investments and efforts that have no foundation in science are made in vain, with no impact on air quality improvement,” says the report.

Despite US President Donald Trump’s jibe about India’s “filthy air”, Delhi did record a drop of 25 per cent in PM-10 levels and a 19 per cent fall in PM-2.5 in 2019, as compared with 2016. But neither the pace of decline of these two key air pollutants, nor the existing target under the National Clean Air Programme are likely to be enough to make the city breathe easily even by 2024, going by the national ambient air quality standards. Air quality management is the need of the hour and must be undertaken at all cost.

(The writer is Technical Associate, Forest Survey of India, Dehradun

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