In many parts of the country, people are seeing blue skies, some for the first time in their lives. As cities like Delhi and Mumbai emerge like a phoenix from decades of smog, new worrying questions are being raised as medical research catches up with the virus.
The new facts are these: First, the virus could attach itself to particulate matter. Though the lethality of the virus in this stage is yet to be ascertained, the very possibility raises the threat to near catastrophic levels. Second, there is the finding that the largest coronavirus deaths have been associated with areas of high pollution.
Both are dark findings for the residents of Indian cities which have the dubious distinction of being in the global top ten of the most polluted. The cornonavirus only brings to danger level a problem that is already associated with childhood asthma, cancer, heart disease and poor agricultural growth, among other issues. Clean air is now not just desirable, it is also completely and absolutely necessary to the continuation of life and the economy.
Rather coincidentally, last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, 1970, in the United States. That Act came about after public dismay at severe smog, acid rain and polluted water. The Act has been credited with a dramatic decrease in pollution despite the fact that underlying sources of pollution like automobiles, electricity generation and industry continued to grow exponentially with a powerful economy. That’s the key. The Act did not constrain industry, but it noticeably reduced its negative aspects. Among its various clauses, it created a single entity — the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) — to deal with the problem.
Second, it set the rules, and then required the states to implement them. If they did not, the errant states would find federal funding cuts, and a ban on new highways or industries. If seriously annoyed, the agency could impose its own rules. The EPA had, therefore, sweeping powers, and used them to regulate automobile emissions, construction and any sphere of industrial activity that would impact public health.
There are other aspects to the EPA, but these are the useful points that concern us. There were, undoubtedly, negatives, too; for example, a rather strangulating bureaucracy, erosion by the industry — particularly the coal lobby — and the governments’tendency to take the axe to environmental issues when it needed money.
But these are common across countries, and are particularly applicable to India. It is also true that the US could do a lot more to reduce emissions since its carbon emission still accounts for nearly 13 per cent of the global toll. But the point is this. The Clean Air Act brought America back from the brink. Cities still have breathable air, which is much more than can be said of much of this country.
In India, there are a host of agencies that deal with pollution. They include the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which is a statutory body with a wide network of stations, whose data it, however, denies responsibility for, on its website.
Then there is the rather grandiosely named Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority set up by the Supreme Court in 1986 for the National Capital Region only. Its latest directive indicates the nature of the problem. It questions why brick-kilns without requisite controls continue to operate, when the question should have been why brick-kilns are operating within a city at all. It also asks Haryana and UP to provide a compliance status on emissions norms decided in 2017, itself based on a plan of 2015. That’s illustrative of the powers enjoyed by a court directed body.
The EPA is also charged with implementing another court-mandated graded response action plan (GRAP) that comes into action when pollution reaches certain limits. The chair of one of its committees is an official from the CPCB, which makes the whole exercise rather a roundabout one, since clearly the CPCB couldn’t manage the required response in the first place.
Then, there is the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which has a bunch of departments under it, including the National Green Tribunal (NGT). That’s rather like locking the dog in a room and expecting it to guard the house. With all this intermeshing and overlapping, the mess is considerable, particularly since none of them have the powers to push any state to do its bidding, least of all the ministry.
Which is why the present government’s undoubtedly well thought-out Clean Air Programme is hamstrung, to begin with. Its mandate is stated as a ‘collaborative, multi-scale and cross-sectoral coordination between the relevant central ministries, state governments and local bodies’.
In ordinary language, that means that it’s nobody’s jurisdiction or responsibility. In Indian government circles, collaboration means delay and red tape, despite the best intentions of men at the top. No, someone has to crack the whip.
The case for a clean air Act for India, therefore, is laying down the law clearly and succinctly — without too many wherefores and whereaboutery, and then creating a single body to enforce it.
An environmental protection agency for the country headed by a cabinet rank minister, and with expert staff to assist him would be entirely reasonable to a government that has ruthlessly streamlined gargantuan ministries before. Such an agency should also be able to source viable alternatives to, for instance, a highway that requires the felling of thousands of trees.
The key aspect of such a law would be that states — and not just cities — would be accountable for their emissions, with money and projects held back if they failed.
States may also be more amenable to the idea when they realise that there’s money in controlling pollution in diverse ways, including fines on industry and the public when they don’t comply with norms.
Meanwhile, there’s no time to lose. If precedent is any guide, post-disaster emissions could get worse, as the country struggles to find its economic feet. There are already signs of that as the environment minister clears project after project that will result in further degradation, and, inevitably, more zoonotic viruses.
Politicians who think that this problem will go away on their term are in for a rude shock. It’s not going anywhere, unless countries start correcting the natural ledger.
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