For nearly four years, the Union environment ministry delayed notifying and enforcing standards that could have reduced industrial emissions in Delhi and helped contain the pollution crisis in the National Capital Region.
These standards would have capped the levels of sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide that industrial units are allowed to release in the air. Formed during the combustion of fuels, whether in car engines or industrial smelters, these oxides create smog and acid rain, adversely affecting human health.
India lacked any regulations on industrial emissions of these two hazardous oxides until the Delhi pollution crisis prompted the Central Pollution Control Board to begin drafting standards in 2014 that would be applicable nationally.
Delhi has 37 categories of industries. For two categories – fertiliser units and nitric acid manufacturers – the pollution board finalised the emission standards in February 2014, which were then sent to the environment ministry for approval. But the ministry failed to approve and notify these standards through 2015 and 2016.
By June 2017, the pollution board had drafted emission standards for another 16 categories of industries. The ministry notified the standards for nine of these 16 categories in July, declaring that two categories of industries did not release nitrogen and sulphur oxides in the air and hence did not require any emission standards.
But the ministry failed to act on the standards drafted in February 2014 for fertiliser and nitric acid units until the Supreme Court reprimanded it on October 24. “This is a completely disgusting state of affairs and this is hardly the way in which the ministry ought to function, if it is expected to perform its duties sincerely,” the court observed, while hearing a petition on the burning of low quality fuels in Delhi’s industries.
On October 30, the ministry finally issued a draft notification laying down standards for 24 categories of industries, including fertiliser and nitric acid units. However, it has kept open a two-month window for public comments and suggestions, which means the final notification remains on hold till December 31.
Disappointed with the ministry’s inaction, the Supreme Court has ordered that irrespective of whether the ministry issues a final notification, starting January 1, 2018, industries will have to abide by the emission standards drafted by the pollution board.
Even if industries meet this deadline, by the time the standards come into force, a significant part of the winter – when pollution in Delhi is at its peak – will be over.
Not a new crisis
For over a week now, severe smog has engulfed Delhi, with ten-fold higher levels of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere than what is considered safe for human health. Both nitrogen and sulphur oxides contribute to the formation of fine particles that invade lungs, leading to adverse respiratory reactions such as inflammation and constriction of the airways and symptoms of asthma.
The pollution crisis has sparked a political blame game, with the Delhi government sparring with the governments of Haryana and Punjab over the burning of farm stubble, one of the sources of pollution.
The Delhi government has also sought to control vehicular pollution by introducing the Odd-Even scheme, whereby vehicles with number plates ending on odd numbers can ply on the city roads only on alternate days.
But a large part of Delhi’s pollution emanates from industrial units in and around the national capital. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, industries and thermal power plants account for almost 98% of the sulphur oxide and 60% of the nitrogen oxide emitted in Delhi’s air everyday.
The onus for containing this pollution lies with the Union government, since emission standards for large industrial units are set by the Union environment ministry. The role of the state governments is limited to enforcing them.
As Scroll.in reported earlier, the Union government enjoys blanket legal powers to take emergency and long-term steps to tackle air pollution anywhere in the country. Under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, the Union environment ministry can close, prohibit or regulate any industry, operation or process, including setting the legally enforceable standards for them.
Its failure to notify emissions standards for nitrogen and sulphur oxides, despite worsening levels of air pollution in Delhi, is glaring, say environmentalists. The widespread use of dirty and toxic fuels is fouling up the air, said Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of Centre for Science and Environment. “Any delay will worsen our health costs,” she added.