Air quality still ‘very poor’; watchdog will take shape next week

With the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca) disbanded, and the Commission yet to be constituted, no body is mandated to take and implement region-wise decisions to tackle a spike in pollution levels in the interim.
A skywalk near the Delhi-Meerut expressway on Friday(Reuters Photo)
A skywalk near the Delhi-Meerut expressway on Friday(Reuters Photo)
Updated on Oct 31, 2020 05:04 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

The newly constituted Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas — formed through a Central ordinance on Thursday to tackle the bad air crisis in the region — will be appointed next week by a selection committee that includes four Cabinet ministers and the Cabinet secretary, according to people familiar with the matter.

The average air quality index on Friday for Delhi was 374, in the “very poor” category — a level at which doctors recommend reduced physical activity for healthy individuals, and vulnerable people face problems.

The selection panel for CAQM — Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, commerce minister Piyush Goyal, road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari, health minister Harsh Vardhan (who is in the committee in his capacity as the science and technology minister), and cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba — will pick six full-time members including the chairman of the commission, who will be a former secretary to the Government of India or chief secretary in a state government.

Two of the other full-time members need to be former joint secretaries to the Union government, and three must be technical experts with experience in tackling the air pollution problem, according to the guidelines laid down in the ordinance. The other 12 members will be ex-officio — representing the states that are part of the NCR region, and from the central pollution board and other Central scientific agencies. CAQM can also co-opt additional members from the ministries of road transport, power; urban affairs, petroleum,agriculture and commerce, and representatives from industry associations.

“Framing of rules for the functioning of the Commission and selection of members will take place simultaneously at the earliest, possibly within a week,” said Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, responding to HT’s query.

Senior environment ministry officials on condition of anonymity said they are not aware of who the selection panel has in mind for the six full-time positions. “It is entirely the discretion of the selection panel which includes the cabinet ministers,” an official said.

With the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca) disbanded, and the Commission yet to be constituted, no body is mandated to take and implement region-wise decisions to tackle a spike in pollution levels in the interim.

To be sure, however, Epca in 2016 devised a Graded Response Action Plan (Grap) to tackle air pollution in the NCR region, and several measures under the scheme are currently in place.

“The decision on what measures are to be implemented in the intermediate period will be taken only if the need arises. The Commission is likely to be appointed next week. The full-time members will be selected by the selection committee and the ex-officio members will be selected by concerned organisations or state governments,” additional secretary Ravi Agarwal said.

“We are aware that air pollution can peak during this time. In the absence of Epca and the Commission, decisions may be taken by the [Central and state] pollution control boards,” said another official, who asked not to be named.

“The irony is that the petition in SC was filed seeking monitoring by SC of the air pollution and stubble burning situation in addition to SC. Now we have situation where EPCA is gone, the one-man committee to oversee stubble fires is also gone and the Commission has not been constituted yet. We only have an ordinance. Even for the Commission to prepare and start functioning will take time. What was the hurry to bring in an Ordinance?” asked Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.

The Delhi government had already expressed its scepticism about the move, with state’s environment minister Gopal Rai saying on Thursday: “The powers to monitor and enforce pollution control norms were with Epca, and are also with our state-level body, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and the central body, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). But unless there is action on the ground, no agency can help.”

Punjab cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa said the setting up of commission is unjustified and overrides the powers of states, adding that the Centre “needs a rethink”.

Officials in the Uttar Pradesh government welcomed the move. “The ordinance and the commission are the steps in the right direction. But we have not yet received a copy of it. Whatever little we know, we have come to know through media. Once we get the copy, the government will study it minutely ...We will have internal meetings. Only then will we be able to comment and start playing our role,” said Sudhir Garg, UP principal secretary (environment).

Some experts have suggested that the Commission — both in its composition and functions — may be too centralised.

“There is no doubt that Epca long outlived its utility. Unfortunately, it is being replaced by a body which is bureaucratic and has similar limitations as EPCA. Instead of including members from other states, it has excluded significant stakeholders — the most prominent being the farmers and their representative groups,” said lawyer Dutta.

Farm fires in Punjab and Haryana contributed to 19% of Delhi’s PM 2.5 load, according to modelling by System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) under Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM). Every year, pollution levels spike in October and November in Delhi when meteorological conditions change—winds become northwesterly and wind speed reduces leading to accumulation of pollutants closer to the surface. The contribution of farm fires in Punjab and Haryana to the northwest of Delhi adds to the local emission sources leading to toxic air in Delhi.

“The composition of the selection committee reflects a myopic approach to air pollution. It does not have representation of key ministries such as agriculture, health and urban development. The composition also throws up deeper issues of federalism and democratic decision-making. It has no representation from state governments that the law is seeking to regulate, nor does it have scope of independent expertise that can weigh in on the selection,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

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