Delhi State to Mobilise Public to Tackle Air Pollution, Says Environment Minister
Polluted air in New Delhi

NEW DELHI, India – Delhi State aims to fight air pollution as a “mass movement” with public participation,  according to Environment Minister Gopal Rai – but a recent conference he called with experts on the issue concluded with no firm commitments.

Rai convened the two-day virtual conference with air pollution experts and clean air advocates to brainstorm ideas for a “long-term action plan to tackle pollution” ahead of north India’s seasonal winter peaks.

New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world and on certain days citizens are exposed to such poor air quality that it is the equivalent of smoking 40-50 cigarettes per day.

“The government will focus on changing the mindset and behaviour of people,” Rai told the meeting. “Within the constraints of the pandemic and restrictions on mass mobilisation, we need to create a mass movement. Our three-pronged approach needs to focus on policy, technology and making the environment a mass concern,” he said. 

Although the government has taken some steps, including an electric vehicle policy (aiming for a quarter of new vehicles licensed to be electric by 2024) and introducing bio-decomposers to curb stubble burning, Rai admitted these were not enough.

Delhi state Environment Minister Gopal Rai

“A plan is needed that can work through the year, and in the coming days we will come up with an action plan to further better Delhi’s air quality index. Nobody knows until when the pandemic will rage, and it’s not feasible to wait that long. We would like your suggestions to create a viable and effective plan for the city,” he said. 

“While we have identified hotspots, it is still challenging to measure the timing, the rate, source and impact of pollution. The Delhi government is working at a technological level to find appropriate tools to measure these indicators which would in turn help us devise the correct policy,” he explained.

However, no commitments were made at the meeting, and experts pointed out that a similar meeting had been called in February 2020, which yielded little in terms of actual pollution control.

Lots of Ideas, But No Follow Through

There is no dearth of ideas on how to control pollution – from banning the manufacture of firecrackers to installing filters in the chimney stacks of industrial units to reduce emissions or mandating norms for fuel and engines. But none is popular because commercial interests are harmed, and defensive lobbies are pushing back in courts.

In October last year, the Delhi government had announced a “war on pollution,” with great fanfare, led from a war room personally commanded by Chief Minister Arvind Kejariwal

His arsenal comprised a seven-point action plan that included:  tracking the city’s hotspots; launching a ‘green Delhi’ mobile app to address open air burning complaints; and repairing the city’s potholed roads to control dust. 

His most powerful weapon at the time was a cheap and simple rapid compost brew, Pusa Decomposer, that Kejriwal had hoped would inspire farmers in surrounding rural states to turn their crop waste into valuable fertilizer rather than burning it. 

Rai told the conference that teams from the adjoining states of Punjab and Haryana had visited a government decomposer pilot, but didn’t offer more details or any commitments made by them to adopt the decomposer.

Unexpected Revival of Air Quality Management Body

The experts suggested taking a proactive, year-round and an airshed approach to reducing air pollution, working collaboratively with neighboring states; creating walking and cycling paths, improving public transport, managing garbage better, choosing cleaner fuel, encouraging electric vehicles for transport and delivery, and enforcing existing pollution control laws. 

The meeting follows an unexpected move by the federal government to approve the re-promulgation of an ordinance to set up a statutory body to manage air quality in India’s polluted National Capital Region, which includes Delhi, and adjoining areas of the Indo-Gangetic plain, which includes Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Significantly, the new ordinance envisages an expanded statutory body that will include the interests of the farming, industry and construction sectors.

The ordinance was first promulgated last October at the peak of north India’s annual ‘airpocalypse’, before being inexplicably allowed to lapse last month, when air quality was beginning to improve slightly. 

But a recent meeting of federal ministers and their bureaucrat counterparts approved the re-promulgation of the ordinance, and the government is expected to introduce it as a Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament, according to environment secretary RP Gupta.

There has been no official word on this development but Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who represents the government in the courts applied to court to place the ordinance on record, which was accepted by the court. 

Once the ordinance is re-promulgated and enacted by presidential decree, the commission is expected to be reconstituted with most of the original members. Although there is no official notification as yet, the original members are expecting to be retained, according to government sources who declined to be named.

The erstwhile 18-member Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM) had been headed by M.M. Kutty, a former bureaucrat who had once headed the ministry of petroleum and natural gas. The other members included Arvind Nautiyal, a joint secretary in the environment ministry, KJ Ramesh, former head of the India Meteorological Department and Ashish Dhawan of the Air Pollution Action Group as an NGO representative.

Key stakeholders including the health, agriculture, rural development and labour ministries, had been left out. 

Sources told Health Policy Watch that the government let the ordinance lapse because the CAQM’s ability to prosecute polluters meant it could impose stringent penalties on farmers for burning crop stubble.

“The farmers’ protests have become a very sensitive topic,” the source said.

Until March, the CAQM was functioning out of a temporary space in the office of the Indian Oil Corporation, and meeting every two to three weeks to outline and discuss its strategy. It had started working on a pilot project on estimating hyper-local pollution using curb-side laser measurements of vehicular pollution.

“The committee had made decent progress,” a source said, noting that if a brand new committee is constituted, this progress would be lost. 

“The only concern we had was around funding. It is still not clear where the funds will be allocated from,” another person close to the committee said. 

They added however that they expect the commission to retain its statutory powers, including those empowering it to impose strict penalties on polluters. These penalties include a jail term of up to five years as well as fines.

The unexpected, and unexplained, dissolution and, now, re-promulgation has taken atmospheric scientists and clean-air advocates by surprise. “#CAQM on the way back; for real or just another charade?” Bhavreen Kandhari, a clean air activist, tweeted.

“The CAQM is a major improvement over the EPCA. The devil is in the details, what is the fund allocation, how large will be the secretariat, how will it be able to carry out punishment and fines, etc. – all this need to be known,” Dr Laveesh Bhandari, economist and director of the Indicus Foundation, said. “It is these details that will decide whether this initiative will be effective.”


Image Credits: Neil Palmer.

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