Central law in works to curb air pollution
The Union government will bring in a new law for a permanent authority to oversee matters relating to air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR), the Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday, prompting the judges to suspend an order that authorised former top court judge Madan Lokur to tackle the issue.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta said the new authority will have a statutory role and have members from all states that contribute to the pollution problem in NCR, assuring the bench that a draft of the law will be shared in four days.
“The Centre has taken a holistic view of the matter and found that several ad hoc measures taken in the past have not achieved any results. Now a comprehensive law is being planned with a permanent body having participation of neighbouring states,” he said.
The submission came on a day when farm fires in Punjab and Haryana hit a new peak and the Capital’s air quality index (AQI) continued to linger in the “very poor” category for the fourth consecutive day, threatening to plunge into the “severe” zone as it has inevitably done at this time of the year for every year since 2016.
Mehta indicated the new law is likely to be brought in as an ordinance and, while he did not give more details, a top environment ministry official told HT it will focus on the Delhi-NCR region.
“I will not share any details of the law or what penalties are involved but this is a comprehensive law focused only on the Delhi-NCR region to curb the air pollution menace here from various sources. It is not an amendment of existing laws,” said RP Gupta, secretary, environment ministry.
The solicitor general also repeated a request for the top court to suspend an October 16 order designating retired justice Lokur to oversee the farm fire problem, claiming there could be points of conflict between the new authority and the former judge’s single-member panel.
Farmland fires contribute heavily to the annual air pollution crisis. Smoke from smouldering paddy fields, which are set alight as a way to prepare for sowing the next crop, rises up and settles over much of north and northwest India. Coupled with local emissions and dust, it has in recent years turned cities into what the Supreme Court once described as gas chambers.
The top court accepted the Centre’s request till the next date of hearing. “People are choking in this city. This is something that the government should have curbed and not a matter to be decided in a public interest litigation (PIL). We will welcome your decision if it is appropriate,” said chief justice SA Bobde, who headed a bench that also comprised AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, who has been assisting the SC on environment-related issues, supported the Centre’s stand. “Attempts made by the Court in the past are not working out. Union government may require to write to states to take effective steps [to curb stubble burning],” Salve said.The lawyer of the petitioner whose plea triggered the hearing had opposed the decision to put the October 16 order “in abeyance”. “For this year, justice Lokur Committee should continue. The law can be made operational from next year. On Thursday, the stubble burning cases in the MC Mehta case are listed. By then, justice Lokur’s report will also be ready,” said Vikas Singh. The October 16 order required the Lokur Committee to submit periodic reports. It was Singh who had suggested appointing an expert committee led by justice Lokur, who has past experience in hearing matters related to stubble burning and Delhi’s pollution.
Experts said that while the Union government has the constitutional right to bring in a law since environment is a central subject, its implementation will need focus. “Though I have not seen the draft and heard only what solicitor general said in the Supreme Court, I believe such a law could be binding on state governments. But orders by the authority to be created under the law would have to be implemented by the state government. In the past, we have seen statutory orders under the Air Act by CPCB were also not implemented by state governments. So, the question would remain that what action Centre can take if the state fails to follow the directions,” said Vijay Panjwani, former counsel for Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), in the Supreme Court.
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta too said the focus should be on enforcing existing mechanisms instead of creating new ones. “Air pollution has been an issue for a fairly long time. Why do you need an ordinance now? The Centre has powers to issue directions under Section 5 of the environment protection act. Why is this coming in the pre-pollution season? It’s a distraction as drafting a law will take time,” he said. Dutta added that the new law will also create multiple authorities.
A third expert said the new law and the mechanism will need to look beyond NCR. “What we need is legal compliance and deterrence strategy for the entire country. The Graded Response Action Plan and the comprehensive action plan are both notified under the environment protection act. There is no dearth of power under the law. The question is of adherence,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment.
“There is always a need to review and refresh laws to keep pace with current requirements. However, this should not be used to evade or dodge the regulatory failures to curb air pollution that have been in and out of courts since the 1980s. At the same time, the socio-political dimensions of the air pollution crisis need to be called out and addressed. This will happen when we get a closer understanding on who bears the heaviest burden of compliance. Even today, the biggest contributors to air pollution like thermal power plants and real estate continue to receive concessions and subsidies,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.