Thursday’s ordinance setting up a Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas is a definitive step in the right direction to cleaning North India’s filthy air. This isn’t just because it replaces a tired, 22-year old empowered authority that never used its teeth effectively. For the first time, the Union government has formally acknowledged air pollution as a serious problem that needs to be solved urgently by a centralised authority.

However, critical to the effectiveness of the new “democratically-monitored” 18-member commission
will be the person appointed to head it. It will need a dynamic, decisive leader. This will determine whether it will end up as yet another body of bureaucracts accountable to its political masters instead of being responsible for achieving measurable, time-bound goals.

It can be called a success only if it succeeds in bringing pollution down, first to below national limits and then to below international limits as set by the World Health Organisation.

The selection committee, which includes four ministers and the Cabinet Secretary, needs to keep this in mind, even though the terms already seem to have limited the choice to current or retired bureaucrats. The devil lies in the details – and implementation.

A war footing

The gazette notification of the ordinance – all five chapters and 26 sections of it – is fairly detailed and has probably been in the works for some time. Perhaps it was US president Donald Trump’s calling out India’s “filthy” air during a domestic electoral debate last week that catalysed this announcement. Or perhaps it was the gradually rising voice of Indians themselves as they become increasingly aware of the problem and begin to demand clean air.

Or perhaps, as the gazette itself acknowledges, the move was compelled by the growing number of petitions and litigations on the environment across courts and the establishment of ad hoc committees to aid and assist monitoring of the problem. Most recently, on October 16, the Supreme Court appointed retired judge Madan Lokur to head a one-person committee to monitor and prevent stubble burning in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.

Whatever the reason, as the notification says, “It is now considered necessary to have a statutory authority with appropriate powers and charged with the duty of taking comprehensive measures to tackle air pollution on a war footing and powers to coordinate with relevant states and the central government.”

Delhi's India Gate on October 24. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

This authority, the gazette states, will replace the 22-year-old Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, which stands dissolved with immediate effect. The reason for its dissolution, the gazette says, is that “the quality of air remains a cause of concern on account of the absence of a statutory mechanism for vigorous implementation of measures put in place”.

In its place, the new commission envisages a “self-regulated, democratically monitored mechanism for tackling air pollution” that will lead to better “coordination, research, identification and resolution of problems surrounding the air quality index”, thus, hopefully, doing away with “limited and ad hoc measures”.

The ordinance stipulates an 18-member commission headed by a chairperson appointed by the Union government and headquartered at Delhi. It will have representatives of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It will be empowered to direct orders to control air pollution and take cognisance of complaints.

The commission will also have the authority to impose fines and will be responsible for laying down parameters to curb emissions and keep air quality under control and supersedes all other bodies. Pollution offences could invite a jail term of upto five years and penalties of up to Rs 1 crore, Section 14 of the notification states.

Leaving aside why it took the government so long to come up with this, especially since pollution is a year-round endemic problem and has been for years, the hurried manner in which this ordinance was promulgated is questionable. It could easily have brought in as a bill to be voted on by both houses when Parliament was in session.

Still missing

On the face of it, the notification appears detailed enough. But what remains missing is the commission’s accountability to time-bound, measurable outcomes. What happens if air quality remains at the current hazardous levels in the Indo-Gangetic Plains next winter or even the year after? We certainly don’t want to be stuck with another ineffective EPCA-like authority on the public payroll for the next 22 years. From an initial understanding, it appears that the commission is centralised and empowered with legal and financial resources. But its own accountability to measurable goals remains to be seen.

Every country that has cleaned up its polluted air has done so after reaching a tipping point. That point comes after pollution becomes undeniable, its health harm acknowledged and after people realise that existing environmental laws have been de-fanged by industry or lobbies with commercial agendas. Usually this happens after some critical event – for example, if a new law is passed, one that serves public health over private commercial interest – or, in India’s case, when the high levels of air pollution are expected to worsen the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether it was Mexico, Los Angeles, London or China, change has come after the tipping point is breached. In India, we are already at that tipping point, with science, data and evidence bringing into focus the twin public health emergencies India is currently facing, caused by levels of pollutants no human should have to breathe in addition to Covid-19. It is time that our legislature and executive ensure that the Air Quality Management Commission demonstrate its intention to clean India’s air by creating a strong structure and mechanism to solve the problem.

Frankly, any responsible government should already have been at work to find real solutions to a gigantic problem that is causing more disease, disability and death than war, terror and several communicable and non-communicable diseases put together.

Smog in Delhi on October 19. Credit: PTI

Until now, it has only been the judiciary that has made any significant attempt at tackling the problem, such as through banning fireworks and crop-stubble burning or the well-intentioned but misdirected order to install smog towers. The fact that our judiciary has been forced to step in points to the absolute paralysis in our executive and a breakdown of governance in handling the problem of pollution. But finally, the Central government seems to be addressing this.

However, unless the chairperson and members of this commission are dynamic and committed, environmentalists fear that this Commision for Air Quality Management may end up becoming yet another body to add to the confusion of existing committees. Even at present, says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, “between the Supreme Court, EPCA, NGT, CPCB and SPCB no one is clear as to what needs to be done”.

Solutions exist aplenty. It has always been about the intention to solve this problem. Even the problem of stubble burning can be solved by zero-till farming by growing crops without disturbing the soil by tilling it, the Pusa decomposer, and educating and discouraging farmers from growing the wrong crop (water-intensive rice) in the wrong state (water-scarce northern states such as Punjab) at the wrong time (due to the Punjab Preservation of Sub-Soil Act meant to save groundwater.)

For years, India’s dirty air has been normalised. Then, it was politicised. Hopefully, with this commission, India’s toxic air will finally be cleaned up.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is the author of Breathing Here is Injurious to your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution to be released by Hachette in November.
Anita Bhargava is co-founder of clean air non-profit Care for Air.