Pollution control

Centre has the powers to tackle Delhi’s pollution crisis, but it is passing the buck

In the past, the environment ministry has bypassed state governments to deal with pollution.

Can the Centre bypass the Delhi government to take emergency and long-term steps to tackle the annual air pollution crisis in the capital? It can, legal experts say. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change enjoys blanket legal powers to prevent damage to public health from pollution anywhere in the country.

Indeed, the ministry has exercised these powers in the past, shutting down factories and other projects to avoid water, air and soil pollution, although, more often than not, it has done so on the directions of the courts.

In Delhi, however, the central government has decided to act as a coordinator rather than a leader in tackling the pollution crisis. On November 9, as severe smog precipitated a public health emergency in the city, the environment ministry constituted a “high level committee to propose and monitor solutions to air pollution”. The next day, it called a meeting of officials from Delhi and neighbouring states and told them to “strictly implement” existing regulations and the Supreme Court’s orders on tackling air pollution. It could have done much more. “Under the Environment Protection Act, the central government has complete executive powers to do whatever it deems necessary to stop environmental pollution,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

Section 5 of the Act states:

“Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law but subject to the provisions of this Act, the Central Government may, in the exercise of its powers and performance of its functions under this Act, issue directions in writing to any person, officer or any authority and such person, officer or authority shall be bound to comply with such direction.”  

These powers extend to closing, prohibiting or regulating any industry, operation or process. “This provision was to ensure the central government can act in the cases of environmental crises where states are unable to take action due to local pressures,” Dutta added. “But the environment ministry has not done anything beyond requesting the obvious: that states must implement existing regulations.”

Acting proactively

In the past, however, the ministry has invoked this law to, for instance, ban expansion of industries in several critically polluted areas of the country as well as new mining activities in the Western Ghats in 2013.

In case of Delhi’s pollution crisis, in contrast, the ministry has passed the buck to the state and its neighbours. At Thursday meeting, it asked Delhi’s officials to “strictly comply” with the Supreme Court’s ban on the use of furnace oil, diesel generators, brick kilns, stone crushers, hot mix plants, and enforce regulations on garbage burning and dust control. The following day, Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan said in an interview to NDTV: “The Government of India has been in touch with the neighbouring state governments...We have instructed the Delhi government to ensure that there is no loophole in terms of what they have to do.”

But as Geetanjoy Sahu, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, pointed out, the ministry does not need to rely on the courts or state governments to stop violation of the environmental rights of citizens. “Under the Environment Protection Act, the ministry can issue notifications or sub-legislation to address issues like Delhi pollution and initiate penal proceeding against the polluters who violate these rules,” Sahu said.

The ministry used this law to tackle the waste management crisis in the country in 2000, drafting new solid waste management rules. In 2006, as assessing environmental impact of projects became a bone of contention, it came up with the Environment Impact Assessment Notification. “It needs to be asked from the ministry why it did not act in case of Delhi’s air pollution,” Sahu said.

The ministry can proactively deal with air pollution under the Air Act of 1981 as well, said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director of the Namati Environmental Justice Programme at the Centre for Policy Research. “It has the mandate to mediate between states in such a crisis, but it has failed to do so effectively.”

Shirking responsibility

Broadly, environment is part of the Concurrent List of the Constitution. The environment ministry drafts regulations to tackle pollution and enforces them through central and state Pollution Control Boards. While the state boards can formulate their own rules and regulations depending on local conditions, they cannot dilute or violate the central rules drafted by the environment ministry.

But leave alone coming up with new directions, the ministry has been diluting its existing regulations on tackling air pollution. Take the case of industries and power plants in and around Delhi, the biggest source of hazardous nitrogen and sulphur oxides that cause respiratory ailments such as airway inflammation, bronchoconstriction and asthma. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, showed that power plants, industrial clusters, restaurants and diesel generators account for almost 98% of sulphur oxides and 60% of nitrogen oxides in Delhi’s air. These pollutants are released by 20 big industries and 25 industrial sectors in Delhi and 13 thermal power plants within 300 km of Delhi. Many of these industrial units use low quality fuel, including furnace oil, illegally. While the ministry has banned the use of oil with over 500 parts per million of sulphur content in the city, it has not put into place a mechanism to check whether the industry is adhering to the norm or not.

In 2015, the environment ministry formulated new standards to cap the emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides by thermal power plants. But, as Scroll.in reported last month, the standards have not been imposed on all 16 thermal power plants that started operations this year. The ministry has also prepared a roadmap for another existing 300 thermal plants to dodge the December 2017 deadline for meeting the standards. For many of the 60 power plants in North India, it plans to extend the deadline till 2023.

“Had the standards been implemented on time, Delhi’s air would have been different today,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam of Greenpeace India, which has taken the environment ministry to the National Green Tribunal for not enforcing the 2015 air pollution rules for thermal power plants.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.