India’s New Air Quality Commission Dissolved – Modi Government Fails Once More To Act On Air Pollution, Critics Say 
Smog over Delhi, India

The unexpected – and unexplained – dissolution of India’s brand-new Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM), established by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the peak of North India’s air pollution crisis five months ago has taken air pollution scientists and clean air advocates by surprise. Members of the commission were also taken aback, learning of the news through weekend media reports, sources familiar with the issue said.

The Commission, disbanded after the Modi government failed to see through a parliamentary law to back up the executive decree issued in October, prompted immediate protests  by opposition politicians, with Atishi Marlena from Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party charging the national government with yet another failure in pollution policies.   

“Who will take action on Haryana, Punjab, UP (Uttar Pradesh), Rajasthan due to burning of stubble?,” Marlena asked, referring to the rural regions around Delhi which flood the city with air pollution during the late fall and early winter. “With the CAQM gone, who will now take action against errant polluters,” she asked, speaking to a Hindi language media outlet. 

Government – Rattled by Farm Protests, Doesn’t Want to Penalise Stubble Burning
Farmers in India protesting new agricultural laws passed by the Modi government.  While the new laws focus on crop price policies – the government may be fearful of any step that could alienate farmers further, some observers believe.

While Modi and his ministers offered no comment, sources told Health Policy Watch that his government was nervous about the powers that had been granted to the new commission – which had been empowered to prosecute polluters, including farmers burning crop stubble, and impose stringent penalties. 

“Farmers protests have become a very sensitive topic,” the source said, noting that the government is rattled by the media attention the protests have gained both domestically and internationally. “It wants no more trouble in this sector in the current scenario.”  

For over 100 days, tens of thousands of farmers have been camped around Delhi’s periphery to protest against a series of agricultural laws passed by the Modi government in September 2020.  Billed as modernization measures, the laws would leave farmers to negotiate produce prices on the open market – something farmers say  will put at the mercy of large agro-businesses, and threaten their livelihoods. Even after multiple rounds of talks between the government and farmers, the protests show no sign of ending. 

Lack of any official communication on the Commission’s sudden dissolution has, however, led to confusion and conjecture. That, after Commision members had reportedly been appointed for a period of three years. 

The confusion continued this week, as some government sources said they still expected the CAQM to be “up and running in a few weeks,” but without saying how that could happen since there is no legal framework for the body to operate – after the time frame for transforming an executive decree into a parliamentary act elapsed. 

One news report even quoted Environment Secretary R.P Gupta saying cryptically “ It’s not that the commission will not come back, but not now. The commission will be coming back slightly late.” 

Commission set up during October Crisis – Initially Offered Hopes Of Change 

The Commission had been hurriedly set up on October 28, 2020 when north India’s air quality was at its worst. The appointed chairman, a retired head of the country’s petroleum and natural gas, took charge on a day in November when official monitors reported PM2.5 levels at almost 100 times more  than WHO’s guidelines for 24-hour average levels of fine particulate matter. 

Air Quality Index of India – real time air quality data as of 17 March, based on a scale of 0 to 500 (Good to Hazardous). Every city in India observed air quality improvements compared to 2018 and earlier,  However, India continues to feature prominently at the top of the most polluted cities ranking with 22 of the top 30 most polluted cities globally.

It is estimated that 1.7 million people die every year in India from air pollution – with Delhi consistently ranking as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The city was estimated to have seen 54,000 deaths due to PM2.5 air pollution in 2020 – or one death per 500 people, according to the most recent Greenpeace-IQAir study, reported by Health Policy Watch.

When it was established last fall, the Commission was billed as a replacement for a bureaucratically awkward, and largely ineffective, Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), which had set up 22 years ago by India’s Supreme Court. The Commission, reporting directly to the Modi’s government, was presented as a body that could act more effectively on the thorny air quality issue. 

Although air quality experts and advocates at the time had questioned its mode of creation – by executive decree at a time when India’s parliament was in recess – they also expressed hopes that the Commission could be a step forward – consolidating the functions of the EPCA and multiple other task forces into a single body with more significant powers, and membership including representatives from the central and state governments.  

Defunct Commission Had Innovative Features – Welcomed By Air Quality Campaigners  

The executive decree, or “ordinance”, that established the now-defunct Commission also included some other innovations that were welcomed at the time by air quality campaigners. These included treating the Delhi national capital region as an airshed; involving some well-respected clean air non-profits; and working from the ground up with a fully-funded secretariat. 

And in some ways, the Commission’s creation also represented the most explicit action yet by Prime Minister Modi to address the threat of India’s air pollution to public health – even though the Prime Minister continues to consistently avoid the issue in his public statements.

“While the process of creating the CAQM was problematic, the agency itself represented a significant milestone. The CAQM had an airshed-level mandate, dedicated funds and staff, and would have assumed accountability for air quality outcomes in the region. The lapsing of the ordinance definitely leaves an institutional vacuum, and is a deeply worrying development,” says Santosh Harish, Fellow at the Centre of Policy Research who specialises in energy and environment policy and air quality governance. 

‘Set Up To Fail’ – Clean Air Community Angry and Aghast  
Real time air pollution indicators globally, as of 17 March, from World Air Quality Index – with pollution indicatrors ranging from Good (0 to 50) to Hazardous (301 to 500).

Now, the commission’s dissolution just five months after its formation has left the clean air community wondering if the body was, in fact, created to fail. 

Throughout its five-month tenure, the commission was publicly invisible – with no official or even social media channels of communication, although sources unofficially spoke about data collection that was underway to better identify local emission sources, exposure levels and pollution levels.

“This one was set up to fail – and it did so gloriously. Without periodic reporting on what the CAQM did, it is unclear what they delivered, so what are we lamenting about?,’ says Karthik Ganesan, a fellow with the non-profit Council on Energy, Environment and Water. 

“In theory, these centrally constituted bodies are effectively replicating the Central Pollution Control Board in its coordination role. Strengthening institutions that actually are vested with the task of addressing AQ at various levels – starting with the CPCB and giving it the autonomy to constitute committees to coordinate action in regional air sheds, would make this a more productive effort,” he added. 

In a scathing piece, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta echoed the message saying: “It was clear from the beginning that the CAQM was designed to fail. In the five months of its existence, its single major failing was that almost nobody even knew it existed. It had no office, email address, website or even a phone number through which people could contact its offices.” 

Dutta added: “The government gave the CAQM the power to hear grievances of the people affected by air pollution, but the main grievance of the people was finding the commission itself.”

Added Bhavreen Kandhari, a member of activist group WarriorMoms called it a shocking lapse:  “The lapse of the CAQM Ordinance has been very disappointing and shocking. This clearly shows how serious the government is about the critical issue of air pollution.”

Campaigners Call For Intervention of Courts Once More 

Now that the Commission has effectively dissolved, air quality advocates are calling for the courts to intervene once more. Traditionally, India’s Supreme Court has been the leading arbitrator of air quality issues – in the absence of strong government policies. 

In fact, shortly before the CAQM was created, the Supreme Court ordered the creation of a new single-judge committee to lead the charge on the air pollution issue, headed by a retired Supreme Court  judge, Madan Lokur.  

Then, just after that appointment was announced, Modi’s government announced that it was forming the new Commission – making judicial intervention irrelevant at the time. 

Some critics now suspect that the Commission’s creation was merely a ploy to head off intervention by the courts at the peak of India’s annual air quality crisis – a crisis that builds up every winter in the dry season, which coincides with autumn crop burning and household heating, and then ebbs again with springtime weather and monsoon rains.  

“Clearly it wasn’t the honest and genuine political will of the government to set up this commission,” said Vimlendu Jha, founder of environment and sustainability non-profit Swechha.

“The dissolution of the commission is just one more flag up in the air displaying arrogance and ignorance of our political class. This episode is a joke on all of us who felt we had arrived at the regional and airshed approach to clean air,” he added. 

Kandhari said that clean air advocates would now file a new legal appeal to the Supreme Court to reinstate it’s committee.  She  said that  the application will be made on behalf of a 17-year old student Aditya Dubey – who suffers the respiratory effects of air pollution – borrowing on a successful legal strategy used last year in the United Kingdom to get the courts there recognize the health effects of air pollution on children. 

“We need immediate intervention by the honourable court to protect our right to breathe,” she said. 

Aam Aadmi Party criticises the dissolution of CAQM, federal govt

Speaking in the  Hindi language  media outlet, opposition legislator Marlena  urged the city’s government to protest the Commission’s dissolution.  In addition to crop burning, she added, other deliberate development policies are contributing to Delhi’s longtime pollution stew, she stressed.

Those, she added, include the federal government’s allowance of “5,000 polluting  brick kilns, 13 thermal power plants and several polluting industries” to flourish within a 300 km radius of Delhi; some 60%  of Delhi’s pollution comes from outside the city. 

CPR’s Harish sounded a more upbeat note saying: “I hope that a new bill to replace the ordinance may yet get tabled, discussed, and passed in the Parliament, and that the CAQM is only temporarily suspended.” 

Depending on the outrage the dissolution generates, that may yet happen. 

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a journalist and author whose non-fiction memoir about the human cost of air pollution, ‘Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health’, was published by Hachette in November 2020.

Image Credits: toiplus/India, Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr, World Air Quality Index.

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