A security guard stands on top of a building amidst heavy smog in New Delhi, India, November 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
In an unexpected move, the Government of India has approved the re-promulgation of an ordinance to set up a statutory body to manage air quality in India’s polluted National Capital Region and adjoining areas of the Indo-Gangetic plain, which includes Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Significantly, the new ordinance envisages an expanded statutory body that will include additional members to represent the interests of the farm, industry and construction sectors.
The ordinance had first been promulgated in October last year, at the peak of north India’s annual ‘airpocalypse’, before being inexplicably allowed to lapse last month, when air quality was beginning to improve slightly. Wednesday’s cabinet meeting approved re-promulgation of the ordinance, and the government is expected to introduce it as a Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament, Times of India quoted environment secretary R.P Gupta as saying. There has been no official word on this development.
Once the ordinance is re-promulgated and enacted as law by presidential decree, the commission is expected to be reconstituted with most of the original members intact. Although there is no official notification as yet, the original members are expecting to be retained, according to government sources who declined to be named.
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. It is expected that the new ordinance will do the same, but this will be confirmed only when the gazette notification is released.
The erstwhile 18-member Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM) had been headed by M.M. Kutty, a former bureaucrat who had once headed the ministry of petroleum and natural gas. The other members included Arvind Nautiyal, a joint secretary in the environment ministry, K.J. Ramesh, former head of the India Meteorological Department and Mukesh Khare of IIT Delhi; plus Ajay Mathur of The Energy Research Institute and Ashish Dhawan of the Air Pollution Action Group as NGO representatives.
The previous notification, with five chapters and 26 sections, was fairly detailed and entailed the CAQM replacing the 22-year-old Supreme Court-empowered Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA). The CAQM reported to the Centre and included representatives from the four states where seasonal stubble-burning is fairly common.
But key stakeholders, like the health ministry, the agriculture ministry, the rural development ministry and the labour ministry, had been left out. With representatives from the construction, industry and agriculture sectors added, some of the issues have been addressed, sources said, adding 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. Theories like these have gained ground especially since there has been no official explanation of why the government allowed the earlier ordinance to lapse in March, bringing down the CAQM with it, if it was going to re-promulgate it.
Until March, the CAQM was functioning out of a temporary space in the office of the Indian Oil Corporation, meeting every two to three weeks to outline and discuss its strategy. It had started working on a pilot project on estimating hyperlocal pollution using curb-side laser measurements of vehicular pollution.
“We had made decent progress,” a source said, noting that if a brand new committee is constituted henceforth, the progress will be lost. “The only concern we had had been around funding. It is still not clear where the funds will be allocated from,” another person familiar with the matter said. They added however that they expect the commission to retain its statutory powers, including those empowering it to impose strict penalties on polluters. These penalties include a jail term of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 1 crore or both for non-compliance or contravention of provisions or rules.
The unexpected, and unexplained, dissolution and, now, re-promulgation has taken atmospheric scientists and clean-air advocates by surprise. “#CAQM on the way back; for real or just another charade?” Bhavreen Kandhari, a clean air activist, tweeted.
“The CAQM is a major improvement over the EPCA. The devil is in the details, what is the fund allocation, how large will be the secretariat, how will it be able to carry out punishment and fines, etc. – all this need to be known,” Laveesh Bhandari, economist and director of the Indicus Foundation, said. “It is these details that will decide whether this initiative will be effective.”
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.