Former NGT chairman Swatanter Kumar says India needs concerted efforts to control air pollution, not more laws

In October, the Supreme Court endorsed National Green Tribunal's order banning 15-year-old petrol and 10-year-old diesel vehicles in Delhi-NCR. The transport department had also issued a notice, warning that vehicles under both the categories will be impounded. But this wasn't the first time a harsh measure was taken to curb air pollution in Delhi. Prior to this, a slew of measures to control air pollution were implemented. But despite the moves, the national capital continues to face pollution woes.

Firstpost spoke to former National Green Tribunal chairman Justice Swatanter Kumar who, in his 5-year tenure, passed a series of orders to control air pollution in Delhi — including that to ban 15-year-old petrol and 10-year-old diesel vehicles. He spoke at length on why such measures are necessary to curb pollution. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

Over the last two decades, the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) have passed a slew of orders as measures to control air pollution in Delhi. But nothing seems to have worked as pollution has increased every year. Where exactly did we go wrong in implementing the orders?

First of all, I find it a misnomer in your statement when you said that ‘we’ have taken appropriate measures. When I talk of ‘we’, I exclude none. Citizens, justice system, governments, implementing authorities, local authorities, boards, regulatory authorities — all are included include in my idea of ‘we’.

The very principle of sustainable development is that we must be very cautious about public health, environment and ecology. To attain this we do not need more laws. There are enough of them and enough orders and judgments of the Supreme Court and the NGT. Had all of them been truly carried out by implementing agencies, then the question of the air quality being so bad would not have arised. Yes, it would have still been very difficult to keep the ambient air quality within the prescribed limits provided., but we would certainly not have had the air quality touching dangerous levels.

We have an attitude to act only when the presence of particulate matter reaches scary levels. This attitude to only manage critical situations must be done away with. Pollution control must be a well-planned course of action divided over a period of time. One cannot keep on introducing one thousand cars everyday on Delhi roads, or introducing 5,000 buses on Delhi roads and drive bumper-to-bumper. We are required to regulate them.

Former NGT chairperson Swatanter Kumar. Image courtesy: greentribunal.gov.in

Former NGT chairperson Swatanter Kumar. Image courtesy: greentribunal.gov.in

We know that vehicles are not the only contributors to air pollution. There are construction activities, road activities which contribute to the pollution. But why does a builder not cover the sand, which is a mandatory requirement as per the building bye-laws? The concerned officials, responsible to ensure that the building bye-laws are followed, regularly visit the construction site. They should ensure that the norms related to environment are followed.

Similarly, why can't the people who cause industrial pollution ensure that their emission levels are within the prescribed limits? There is also stubble burning, which is a very big contributor to pollution. But it is manageable. However, are we providing sufficient incentive to the farmers to stop stubble burning? I have met people in Punjab and found that the farmers are quite willing to give up the practice. But they complain that the agencies are not co-operating with them. Merely having laws and judgments would not suffice unless we follow them concertedly.

There are multiple agencies in Delhi responsible to control pollution. For instance, we have Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), then we have Environment Pollution Control Authority and also the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. Do you feel that this structure has failed to deliver and there is a need to overhaul this entire structure?

There are certain misconceptions about the powers and functions of these agencies. The CPCB is supposed to make the environment policy for the government, and not control pollution. It is supposed to issue directions about how to control pollution. These directions have to be implemented by the local agencies. Same can be said about the state pollution control boards. To some extent, the state boards are directly involved in controlling air pollution. Now these agencies have their own problems such as lack of infrastructure and lack of staff.

We are looking for excuses on how not to comply with the environmental norms. We are not aiming at following them despite limited infrastructure to do so. Even the courts have to ensure that the directives are followed, failing which consequences as per law should follow.

Why should there be a choice of not following a court judgment? It should be a normal course of action of the agencies to implement the them.

It is necessary to shut down industries running on coal, and stop construction activities when air pollution reaches a beyond-permissible limit. It is necessary to ensure that sprinkling of water is done to control air pollution. Whatever is necessary to control pollution has to be done, and cost of doing it should not be a deterrent. It is better to spend in controlling air pollution than to later spend on people’s health.

Over the last two decades, the courts have passed a series of orders to control vehicular pollution, which gives one the impression that vehicles are the major contributor to air pollution. But despite the implementation of these orders, air pollution has reached hazardous levels.

The air pollution has increased despite these orders because we have added other factors of pollution. We should be thankful to the Supreme Court because it passed order to make usage of CNG compulsory for a major section of vehicles. If this wasn’t passed, I don’t know whether we would have been able to live in Delhi. But the courts are not panacea to all problems of administration and executive. The courts are generally interfering because the fundamental rights of the people have been violated. How will you justify the lack of adequate facility for mass transportation? Is the lack of adequate public transportation facility is not a reason why so many private vehicles ply on Delhi roads? Why would anyone drive for an hour and a half everyday to his office in his private car if there was adequate facility for public transport? I repeat that we need a concerted effort to control pollution.

During your tenure as the NGT chairman, older vehicles were banned in Delhi but in your tenure it was revoked partially.

The NGT has never revoked its decision. It (the decision) is in force even today. Now I am told that the government is passing orders for implementation of this order. As per the order, 10-year-old diesel vehicles and 15-year-old petrol ones are not supposed to be on Delhi roads. But different alternatives were provided to the owners of these vehicles. If a car over the age limit is deemed 'fit enough', it can go to a less polluted area that has larger space for absorbing air pollutants and have better ambient air quality.

Secondly, the government was supposed to give the owners of such vehicles the benefits for doing away with their cars. The benefits were to be spread across scrapping, registration of new vehicles and concessions in purchase of new vehicles. If these benefits are given, why would not people follow the order?

But for many families in India, a car is still a lifelong purchase. Do you think that banning their vehicle from use is like punishing them for the failure of the government to control pollution?

I don’t agree with that idea. Even a two-wheeler also causes a lot of pollution. Nowadays, the two-wheeler manufacturing companies have improved the quality of the vehicles, but earlier they used to burn Mobil oil. We have to take such measures to curb pollution. In Singapore, the registration fees of the second car bought by a person 50 times higher than that of his first car.

Do you drive a CNG car yourself?

No, I drive a petrol car.

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2018 22:38:44 IST

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