A bird flies past the Humayun’s Tomb shrouded in smog in New Delhi, October 29, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis.
The unexpected – and unexplained – dissolution of India’s Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM), set up by presidential decree at the peak of North India’s air pollution crisis last year, has taken atmospheric scientists and clean-air advocates by surprise. Members of the commission were taken aback too, finding out through media reports on March 13 rather than by official communication, sources familiar with the issue said.
The government set up the CAQM in a hurry via an ordinance promulgated on October 28, 2020. Retired bureaucrat M.M. Kutty was appointed its chair on November 5 and took charge on a day when official monitors reported PM2.5 levels in Delhi as high as 953, almost 100-times more polluted than the levels stipulated in the WHO guidelines for 24-hour particulate pollution levels.
The CAQM replaced the 22-year-old Supreme Court-empowered Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), and reported to the Centre.
Less than five months later, the CAQM stands dissolved without even an official press communique about its dissolution, leading to conjectures. Several news organisations on March 13 only reported the lapse of the ordinance that had brought the commission into being, without further explanation. A national wire service quoted environment secretary R.P. Gupta saying that since the CAQM ordinance wasn’t introduced in Parliament within six weeks of its reconvening, it lapsed, taking the commission down with it. This doesn’t explain why the government allowed the ordinance to lapse.
The government had the option to re-promulgate or present it to Parliament to convert it to an act. According to sources, the environment ministry had even prepared a note for a government cabinet meeting, but it’s unclear what happened to the note, or other courses of action. The confusion continued on March 15, even as some government sources said they expected the CAQM to be “up and running in a few weeks,” but without saying how that could happen.
Note that the personnel ministry in November 2020 had appointed members of the commission for three years from the date of assumption of charge of the post or until attainment of the age of 70 years.
Air-quality experts hoped the CAQM would address Delhi-NCR’s dirty air problem. Although they had questioned its mode of creation – through an ordinance rather than a parliamentary Bill – the fact that the CAQM replaced EPCA and multiple other task forces as a single new body with full-time staff and significant powers offered promise. In some ways, it had represented the most explicit action yet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the threat of India’s air pollution to public health – even though he continues to avoid the issue in his public statements.
“While the process of creating the CAQM was problematic, the agency itself represented a significant milestone,” Santosh Harish, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research who specialises in energy, environment policy and air quality governance, said. “The CAQM had an airshed-level mandate, dedicated funds and staff, and would have assumed accountability for air-quality outcomes in the region.”
But now, its dissolution within months of its constitution has changed the story. Even during its five-month tenure, there had been no official, even social media, channels of communication while unofficial sources talked of work being done to collect information on hyperlocal emissions, exposure levels and work around solutions that tackled all aspects of pollution.\
“This one was set up to fail – and it did so gloriously. Without periodic reporting on what the CAQM did, it is unclear what they delivered, so what are we lamenting?” says Karthik Ganesan, a fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
“In theory, these centrally constituted bodies are effectively replicating the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in its coordination role. Strengthening institutions that actually are vested with the task of addressing air quality at various levels – starting with the CPCB and giving it the autonomy to constitute committees to coordinate action in regional air sheds, would make this a more productive effort.”
But activists aren’t resigned. They are angry.
Bhavreen Kandhari, a member of activist group WarriorMoms, mothers fighting for clean air, called the lapse “shocking” and “disappointing”. “This clearly shows how serious the government is about the critical issue of air pollution. Due to the CAQM ordinance, EPCA ceased to exist and now with the lapse of ordinance, the Commission has also gone. So we need immediate intervention by the honourable [Supreme] Court to protect our right to breathe,” she added.
A government source said on condition of anonymity that the government let the ordinance lapse because of the CAQM’s ability to prosecute polluters – which meant it could impose stringent penalties on farmers for burning crop stubble.
“The farmers’ protests have become a very sensitive topic,” the source said, noting that the government is rattled by media attention, especially from international organisations. It wants no more trouble in this sector in the current scenario.
Another theory doing the rounds questions is that the government hurried the CAQM’s creation in order to stymie the formation of a single-judge committee headed by Justice Madan Lokur. Such a committee had just been appointed by the Supreme Court, and was taken down within days to make way for the CAQM.
“To me the ordinance now feels like an attempt to not let the Lokur committee come into being. He is known to be strict and fair,” an air-pollution policy researcher at a think-tank said.
“Clearly, it wasn’t the honest and genuine political will of the government to set up this commission, as it arrived at this by dismantling EPCA, stopping Justice Lokur, weakening state environment bodies – and very conveniently being allowed to lapse by not discussing it or approving the ordinance,” Vimlendu Jha, founder of sustainability non-profit Swechha, said.
He added that the commission’s dissolution only puts the “arrogance and ignorance of our political class” on display. “It seems like everything that the government is doing or shows it is doing with respect to air pollution is mere lip service and a sham. This episode is a joke on all of us who felt we had arrived at the regional and airshed approach to clean air.”
Some activists called out the subdued response to the lapse on social media. “Really shocked and saddened,” tweeted 17-year-old environmentalist Aditya Dubey.
“The Justice Lokur commission nominated by the Supreme Court had been kept in abeyance because the government had assured the court that the new commission would take care of the air quality of Delhi and adjoining areas,” Kandhari said. “But now that the ordinance has lapsed, we are moving an application before the Supreme Court that the abeyance order should be vacated and the Lokur committee be made operational again.” Kandhari said.
She said the application will be made in public interest by Dubey, a student-environmentalist who suffers from the respiratory effects of air pollution, to direct the Lokur commission to manage Delhi’s air quality.
On March 15, Atishi Marlena, a legislator of the Aam Aadmi Party, currently in power in Delhi, addressed journalists and took on the national government with a slew of questions: why the government allowed the ordinance to lapse, who will now take action against errant polluters, and why the government has allowed 5,000 polluting brick kilns, 13 thermal power plants and several polluting industries within a 300-km radius of Delhi to flourish. (She also quoted a report that estimated that 60% of Delhi’s pollution comes from outside the city.)
Marlena said her party would initiate legal action on the matter.
“I hope that a new bill to replace the ordinance may yet get tabled, discussed and passed in Parliament, and that the CAQM is only temporarily suspended,” said Santosh Harish. Depending on the outrage the dissolution generates, that may yet happen.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a journalist and author whose non-fiction memoir about the human cost of air pollution, Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health, was published by Hachette in November 2020.