Centre's decision to form panel to fight Delhi pollution arbitrary; involving states must for solution

The Central government should have taken the decision to form a panel much before the pollution season started.

Sayantan Ghosh November 05, 2020 15:03:48 IST
Centre's decision to form panel to fight Delhi pollution arbitrary; involving states must for solution

Air pollution at the National Capital

The Central government has recently come up with the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020. By this, the Central government has set up a statutory body which will have representatives of the states and the Centre.

After the ordinance, the Supreme Court-mandated pollution watchdog EPCA or Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority got dismantled and no other agency will now have any authority to monitor the pollution situation of northern India.

Most importantly this ordinance has clearly mentioned that no other court except the NGT will have the authority to listen to cases related to this commission. This sudden decision of the Central government has perplexed authorities who are fighting against air pollution.

In the morning of 5 November, the Central Pollution Control Board website notes that the air quality of Delhi is "severe". Thick haze has engulfed the city and the visibility has gone down severely. At one side the weather condition this year is very different from the last year as Delhi-NCR witnessed the coldest October so far, on the other side the stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab has shown a massive spike.

"As per data by Punjab Remote Sensing Centre (PRSC), around 40,000 incidents of stubble burning have been reported so far this year, said GS Gill, nodal officer, Punjab Pollution Control Board on Wednesday," noted a report in Economic Times.

The real problem lies in the arbitrariness of forming this commission. The pollution in the north Indian states is a well-known issue and it happens every year. The Central government should have taken the decision much before the pollution season.

But the Centre decided and notified the commission on the last week of October when the stubble burning has already started and the air quality worsened. Significantly, the Centre also did not first oppose the Supreme Court's direction to monitor the stubble burning issue by retired judge Justice Madan Lokur. After the direction was passed then the Centre informed the Supreme Court about their plan.

The ordinance passed by the Centre noted, "No other individual, or body, or authority, constituted either under the law enacted by Parliament or by the state government or nominated in terms of judicial order shall act upon or have jurisdiction in relation to the matters covered by this ordinance.”

Under the order of the Supreme Court from 15 October-15 March, the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) comes into play and the authority to set up the norms of the GRAP was EPCA but the new ordinance has dismantled the existence of EPCA. This shows that the Central government has not lost oversite on the matter of pollution. Without discussing with any of the states of north India the Centre just abolished the agency.

This year the Delhi government rolled out the EV (electric vehicle) policy which is first of its kind in India. This policy is not only about a long term plan of a pollution-free National Capital but also it is motivating the current buyers of vehicles to shift to EV by encouraging various subsidy.

The Delhi government is, on the other hand, the only government in north India which has shut down all the major thermal power units in the National Capital. The AAP government has also launched an awareness campaign called Red Light On, Gaadi Off which is about encouraging people to avoid idling of the vehicles. The Delhi government has also used the Pusa Institute' bio-decomposer technique to convert stubble to manure.

But all these measures can only control the local sources of pollution. The Delhi government has no control over the stubble burning on the neighbouring states of Delhi which causes around 40 percent of Delhi's pollution. An article published in PTI noted, "The share of stubble burning in Delhi's pollution rose to 40% on Sunday, the maximum so far this season, according to a central government air quality monitoring agency. The Ministry of Earth Sciences' air quality monitor, SAFAR, said 3,216 farm fires were spotted over Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand on Saturday. The share of stubble burning in Delhi's PM 2.5 pollution was 40% on."

The Central government should sit with all the state governments this year before the pollution season and find out a solution to stop stubble burning. Despite knowing the risk of pollution during COVID-19 pandemic the Central government has stayed numb.

Earlier in 2019, it was found that the Centre has not sanctioned any fund to the Delhi government to fight pollution under National Clean Air Programme. An article published in Times of India, "The national capital facing severe air pollution+ has not received any funds from the Centre under the 'National Clean Air Programme' despite being among the 102 non-attainment cities, the Rajya Sabha was informed on Monday.

Calling air pollution as one of the biggest global environmental challenges, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in January 2019 launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP).

What are the state governments supposed to do now? Should they wait for the commission to act? Should they follow the GRAP? Should they just carry out their own plans? And then what will happen to the citizens?

The author is a research fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Centre and a freelance journalist who writes on issues of governance and politics. The author can be reached at @sayantan_gh.

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