New body, old problems

By taking the Ordinance route to set up an umbrella commission to deal with pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR) and its adjoining states, the Centre has displayed a sense of urgency in tackling this menace. The apex body, called the Commission for Air Quality Management in the NCR and Adjoining Areas, has been empowered to monitor and check sources of pollution in five northern states — Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. It subsumes the existing anti-pollution entities like the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) and the three committees-cum-task forces functioning independently under the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Prime Minister’s Office, and the environment ministry.

The new commission has been given ample powers, including those of penalising the offenders with a fine of up to Rs 1 crore and imprisonment extending to five years. But there are conspicuous loopholes which blunt its teeth. For one, the multiplicity of pollution regulatory bodies as well as the laws governing air pollution would still persist. The Central and state pollution control boards, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the long-term national clean air project, and the Comprehensive Action Plan to mitigate pollution will remain intact. This can cause confusion and conflicts, allowing the blame to be passed on to the others. Moreover, the new commission would need to rely on these bodies and state governments for the ground-level implementation of its orders. The past record of these agencies in implementing pollution control policies and actions does not inspire much confidence. Even the EPCA had vast powers, apart from the Supreme Court’s backing, but it failed to live up to the task mainly because of the inability of these agencies to carry out its orders. The unabated torching of crop residues and the poor enforcement of the Graded Response Action Plan bear this out.

This apart, the states, too, seem to be ill at ease over the setting up of a commission whose writ would override theirs. They view this top-down approach as infringement of the principles of federalism. The Delhi government has publicly aired its discomfiture over being dictated by a Central body dominated by bureaucrats and headed by a serving or former officer of the rank of secretary in the Centre or chief secretary in a state. Besides, this move has also not gone down well with the farmers of this region, especially of Punjab and Haryana, who are protesting the Centre’s agri-reforms laws. They have threatened to disobey any diktat of the commission that goes against their interests — the obvious reference being to the bar on burning paddy stubble.

Nevertheless, the immediate task of the new commission has to be to carry out the EPCA’s unfinished agenda. This includes curbing pollution from inter-state public transport; dealing with thermal power plants and polluting industries; and checking other pollution-causing activities like waste burning, manual sweeping, and dust-generating construction work. The commission would also have to pursue the introduction of next-generation vehicular fuels, BS-VI fuels. These challenges can be met only through time-bound programmes implemented meticulously through joint efforts of the Centre, states, and pollution control boards. The success of the new commission would depend on how well it can coordinate these efforts.


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