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The Daily Fix: Severe air pollution is a grave violation of the fundamental right to life

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The Big Story: Poison in the air

When law and order deteriorates in a state, a Constitutional process with specific remedial measures immediately kicks in. This includes the powers of the Centre to warn the concerned state government to get its act together. If even the warning fails, the Constitution provides measures to remove the state government through a parliamentary process. The basis for providing such an extreme measure in the Constitution is the recognition that maintenance of law and order is essential to protect the most fundamental of all rights – the right to life.

But maintenance of law and order alone does not guarantee the right to life. One crucial aspect of this right is the health of the population, which depends heavily on the environment. It is for this reason that the Supreme Court in 1991 made it clear that Article 21 of the Constitution, which gives citizens the fundamental right to a dignified life, is inclusive of a right to access a “wholesome environment” that includes clean air and water. If citizens are denied clean air or water, they can enforce this right under Article 32 of the Constitution by approaching the Supreme Court directly.

Seen in this context, what is transpiring in Delhi and surrounding regions of North India is a Constitutional violation of a grave nature that is depriving its residents of healthy living. On Tuesday, a public health emergency was declared in Delhi after pollution levels dipped to the “severe category”. A blanket of smog engulfed the city, with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal calling the national capital a “gas chamber” and asking his education minister to declare a holiday in schools. Train and flight services were affected after visibility deteriorated. According to the non-governmental organisation Greenpeace, levels of Particulate Matter 2.5, considered the most deadly of pollutants with its ability to enter the blood stream, reached 710 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts, which is almost 11 times over the safe limits prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

The Delhi High Court stepped in on Tuesday and asked state governments in the northern region about the measures they had initiated to curb crop burning, considered a significant contributor to the worsening air quality.

But such probing questions from the courts are nothing new. Last year during the same period, pollution levels shot up alarmingly. The governments later assured the courts that they would take all possible measures to curb crop burning and other contributors to pollution. However, it is clear from the air outside that very little has been done in the last one year apart from empty assurances before the judiciary. In the meantime, the Centre has continued to water down environment norms in a number of areas, including in thermal power plants which are considered a significant health hazard.

The argument of constitutional violation does not mean a step towards dismissing state governments for failing to tackle pollution. In the case of environment, it is the shared duty of both the states and the Centre to assure clean air and water. World over, it has now been recognised in certain terms that there are some basic duties that a government should fulfil, foremost of which is protecting the health and wellness of the population by providing quality healthcare and access to food, water and clean air. Despite claims of being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India continues to fail in this most basic of duties towards its citizens. The courts need to remind the government in stronger terms that abdication of such a basic Constitutional responsibility should not become the new normal.

The Big Scroll

  • No city is an island: Lessons from Delhi’s odd-even experiment.
  • Why farmers burn their fields in Punjab despite knowing that it worsens the fog over north India.
  • India allows 16 new thermal power plants that violate stricter air pollution standards to come up.  

Punditry

  1.   Can the Congress pitch its campaign strong enough to make up for organisational weaknesses? Zoya Hasan in The Hindu writes on the party’s campaign in Gujarat.  
  2. Demonetisation was part of a political imagination that is closer to a technocratic authoritarianism, says Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express. 
  3. Seema Bansal in the Mint says simple fixes, many of which are administrative and managerial, could save millions of newborns in India. 

Giggles

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Rohan Venkat looks back at how demonetisation hit ordinary citizens.

“As they waited in line to either deposit cash or get access to the few new notes in circulation, people in Allahabad discussed rumours that Modi would find a way to deposit money into each person’s personal bank account once the massive task was complete. Indeed, across the country there were people undergoing tremendous hardship yet not complaining, labouring under the belief that the government’s efforts would end corruption and eventually offer them some sort of compensation after having collected huge amounts of black money. No such proposal to deposit money into bank accounts has yet been put forward by the government.” 

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