Bad-air law drafted, cleared in less than a week
It took less than a week in October for the environment ministry to draft and promulgate an ordinance mandating a commission to monitor air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR), a Right to Information (RTI) reply has revealed, showing that the process of framing the law started only after the top court ordered the formation of a committee (a different one) to track pollution.
On October 16, the Supreme Court said it was setting up a committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur for monitoring stubble burning and air pollution in the NCR and nearby areas, considered to be some of the most polluted in India, particularly in the winter months when post-harvest crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana causes the capital to be shrouded by smoky haze.
Five days after the SC order, the ministry started the process of setting up CAQM (Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas) with statutory backing and on October 24, it requested the court not to constitute the panel.
The SC agreed to the request.
“The first draft of the Ordinance was created on October 23, 2020,” the reply to an RTI application filed by this correspondent said. And the Ordinance was promulgated on October 28, it added.
The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020 mandated the statutory body to adopt a consolidated approach towards monitoring, tackling and eliminating causes of air pollution in Delhi-NCR by coordinating with state governments which, however, were not consulted on the law.
The ordinance replaced the 22-year-old Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) which introduced several important interventions to control pollution. According to the Ordinance, based on court orders, various ad hoc committees like the EPCA had been formed to assist in the implementation of court directives, but the new commission would subsume them.
The commission works under the supervision of the central government and comprises members from all NCR states and the Central Pollution Control Board, apart from ministries such as petroleum and natural gas, agriculture and commerce. The commission is empowered to take decisions and act against sources of pollution under various laws like the Environment Protection Act and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act.
Former petroleum secretary MM Kutty was appointed as the first chairperson of the commission on November 7.
Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) Prasoon Tripathi, in the RTI reply on December 2, admitted that there had been no consultations with the states or public on the draft. This was in reply to a question whether the state governments and public had been consulted on the important air pollution mitigation legislation.
“The ministry of law and justice was consulted. The ministry of law and justice promulgated the draft for its promulgation,” the reply said.
He did not provide the file notings and different versions of the draft law before the ordinance was promulgated, saying the file was not with him. “As and when the file is received to the undersigned, the relevant information will be provided.”
An environment ministry functionary familiar with the development said the commission was set up in a short time to initiate a coordinated effort to control air pollution in NCR.
“The government was swift to act and provided a platform of all stakeholders including the civil society to become part of the government’s effort to control air pollution,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Legal experts said the new commission had become a hub of civil servants.
“It is obvious that the environment ministry was not keen on another SC appointed committee to monitor air pollution. So, it promulgated the Ordinance, (creating the commission) which is dominated by bureaucrats. Of the 15 members, only three members represent NGOs. The majority of ministries engaged in actions that contribute to the pollution such as that of power, housing and road transport are there but crucial ones such as rural development and health are missing. No farmer body has been included even though stubble burning is said to be main cause of air pollution in northern India,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer.
The central government has effectively taken control of anti-pollution measures in the Delhi-NCR, as is evident from the fact that the chairperson of this commission is a central government appointee, said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research think tank.
“The enforcement mechanism is clearly top down and so far there is no indication that it will include third-party monitoring and citizen-driven enforcement,” she said.
On Tuesday, the air pollution levels in Delhi and National Capital Region was between very poor to severe with Ghaziabad being the most polluted city with Air Quality Index (AQI) of 415. Many towns in Uttar Pradesh such as Bulandshahr and Kanpur reported AQI of more than 400. Delhi had AQI of 386, which meant that the capital’s air quality was poor despite lesser number of vehicles on road because of Bharat Bandh called by farmer bodies demanding repealing of three farm laws.