The key to long-term clean air is a landmark regulatory overhaul.
A casual scanning of the available lists of the world’s most polluted cities show one thing in common — India. No bad air list is complete without at least three Indian cities in the top 10. Annually, air pollution has killed almost eight times more people than COVID-19 has done so far. In October 2020, the national capital region, with Delhi at its centre, experienced the twin peaking of air pollution and COVID-19. Amidst the public outrage and a public interest litigation, an ordinance on 28 October brought into being the Commission on Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas.
Can this high-powered commission ensure air that meets the national standards in Delhi and NCR? The history of Indian air policy gestures to the chances. Let’s examine Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), which came into being in 1998 to “protect and improve the quality of the environment and prevent and control environmental pollution in the NCR.” It was dissolved after 22 years to create the Commission.
The commission’s mandate is to monitor the status of air pollution, the enforcement of laws after monitoring and research, and provide for innovative solutions to curb air pollution. In case of any conflict in the orders or directions of the Commission and any state government, the direction of the Commission shall prevail. Civil courts shall not have the authority to take up any matter arising due to any order or direction passed by it.
In its long tenure, the EPCA advised the Supreme Court, monitored the Graded Rapid Action Plan during emergencies in Delhi and served as a general watchdog. It was able to minimise Petcoke as industrial fuel — a big step forward. Yet, many of its recommendations required implementation by multiple agencies, notably the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) (which will hereafter be referred to generically as SPCBs) and the Central Pollution Control Board. The mandate of the SPCBs is to advise the state government on any matter concerning the prevention, control or abatement of pollution, collect and disseminate information relating to pollution and the prevention, and the control or abatement of pollution.
Two inferences can be made here. First, the SPCBs are key to implementing the plans of both the EPCA and the Commission. Second, significant overlaps exist between the mandates of the Commission and the SPCBs, especially related to implementation and decision-making. Clearly, the efficiency of the Commission is predicated on that of the SPCBs.
Amongst the world’s most polluted cities are Delhi, Faridabad and Gurugram. How do their pollution control boards fare? The DPCC is struggling to even recruit 48 junior environmental engineers. Several positions created in 1998 could not be filled because it took 16 years to make recruitment rules. Its senior staff, well into their 50s now, have been promoted recently, after a long and uncertain wait. Pensions don’t exist. Year after year, the body hires interns to monitor and escalate potential violations. The Haryana Pollution Control Board suffers a 70 percent shortage of manpower. In both cases, scientists and engineers are being forced to masquerade as lawyers, handling responses to the many court cases that are filed. In both cases, existing staff multi-task to fill in for colleagues not yet hired, but whose duties are germane to getting the work done. During the winter of 2020, a DPCC scientist (name withheld) mentioned that he was feeling very ill from lack of sleep and exhaustion. For several days, he and his colleagues were doing what they were hired for, plus overseeing legal cases and the challenge of COVID-19 waste. But in the winter, they were also expected to finish the day’s work and go looking for illegal fires, contributing to air pollution, at night. In Haryana, faced with the Avian Flu threat, HSPC scientists with no training in animal husbandry, are expected to inspect poultry farms and address the issue. When the regulatory authorities are on the verge of collapse, is it reasonable to expect any clean air plan to stand implemented? In previous years, several discussions around the efficacy of EPCA underscored that Delhi’s air had significantly declined during its long tenure. This is a fact, but it also indicates how larger institutional weakness influenced EPCA’s outcomes. This will likely be repeated in the case of the Commission.
More importantly, one might also ask, would the Commission still be needed if these regulators and operations arms of the government performed well?
It is likely that history will repeat itself on many fronts. First, the Commission, no matter how outstanding its members, cannot deliver with a broken regulatory system. A General can’t win a battle without excellent foot soldiers. Second, institutional reforms are urgently needed, but this is not the Commission’s mandate. Besides, the state governments are already mandated to do this. If, acknowledging its Achille’s Heel, the Commission pushes for institutional strengthening, it might be over-stepping its mandate and risk being undermined. In return, the Commission would itself become redundant, as much of its mandate overlaps with the SPCBs. This in itself should be seen as a success not a threat. Third, Delhi is not India. The Commission’s mandate is restricted to the capital and to the extent it impacts, the NCR. Yet, in 2020, we woke up to the realisation that, apart from scores of others, both seaside cities, Chennai and Mumbai suffered from severe air pollution. It would be constitutionally wrong to privilege the capital in a severe issue like this. The National Clean Air Plan lists 122 non-attainment cities. How many Commissions should India set up to address the challenges in these cities alone? Finally, even improving air quality in Delhi requires long arms. Take the example of the most pressing transboundary issues : the 11 powerplants within 300 kilometres of Delhi. They must upgrade to new emission standards, postponed ad nauseum. The courts are also hearing the issue. There is very little role for the commission in this. Yet, not addressing this weakens the commission’s results.
If not this powerful commission, then which institution is most likely to clean India’s air? The key to long-term clean air is a landmark regulatory overhaul, with a powerful, well-funded independent agency out of the ambit of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and other ministries. It must report to the Parliament so it can fearlessly bell several cats. It must be headed by a serving government official, whose performance determines his or her career trajectory, or a scientist. Existing EPAs, such as those of the USA, are not our best models, because air pollution in India is not only a technical challenge but an outcome of our economic trajectories and national aspirations. To tame the beast, the new body must embrace the knowledge of economists, doctors, social scientists, small entrepreneurs and scientists by including them in its core staff. Without an overhaul of this order, India will continue to chase commissions and authorities in the hope of an impossible paradise.
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