Winter has set in and pollution levels are once again soaring in Delhi. Even after a slew of measures were announced by the government, little seems to have improved. So what is it that is missing, or hinders, our fight against pollution?
Two things are paramount to understand this issue. First, there are several different sources of pollution, each of which needs a separate solution. Second, pollution doesn’t know borders: pollutants are carried for hundreds of kilometres which means that not all of Delhi’s pollution originates in the capital. And likewise, it also contributes to pollution in nearby regions.
Weak State capacity
Experts say that one of the critical constraints that plague pollution control in India is its weak State capacity, defined as the ability of the government to administer and its capacity to design and implement rules or policies.
Even though we are able to push certain legislations and adopt the principles needed for sustainability, the big gap lies in the implementation, says Anumita Roychowdhury, head of Centre for Science and Environment's clean air programme.
“Environmental laws are pretty strong but it does not necessarily lead to enforcement and implementation. Institutions and mechanism of implementation are weak or have not matured.”
For instance, as per a study by IIT Kanpur, road dust accounts for 38 per cent of Delhi’s pollution.
To reduce the dust, municipal corporations will have to manage their construction activities a lot better and contractors will be required to spray water to eliminate dust, cordon off construction areas, complete projects in a time-bound manner, use drilling instead of digging among other things
“Regulating all this would require a PWD that is a lot less corrupt and a lot more competent. In order to get there, the government would have to start by imposing regulations and raising penalties for non-compliance and disciplining engineers who did not enforce the rules. All of this is difficult because corruption is built into the construction business from top to bottom,” says Dr. E. Somanathan, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, who researches the economics of environment and development.
Shubho Roy, legal consultant at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), reckons that we fail to curb pollution as the pollution control boards (PCBs) don’t really have any features of a modern regulator, apart from some legislative powers. “The PCBs in India are designed to be toothless... they don’t have adequate legal authority to do much about pollution, nor have the financial and administrative capacity,” Mr. Roy says, adding that there is no mechanism to ensure transparency or accountability.
Role of the government
So, does the responsibility to fix air quality issues lie with the government alone?
Mr. Roy believes that “not only should governments protect the environment, but classical economics predicts that only governments are in a position to do so.” This is because citizens can’t coordinate their actions.
“I pollute when I drive a car or use electricity, but most of that pollution harms someone else. I would prefer everyone else to stop polluting. But there is no practical way for citizens to coordinate on a solution except through the government,” says professor Somanathan.
Here, Mr. Roy argues that legislative and executive actions are the way forward, and not judicial interventions. “Judicial intervention through the National Green Tribunal seems to be the only way we are intervening to protect the environment. I feel it is counterproductive and will harm the environment and the judiciary.”
Ms. Roychoudhury, however, says that the judiciary does not work on its own.
“It responds when people go to the court to seek relief from a problem. Public Interest Litigation is an empowering tool for the civil society. If citizens are having issues and being hurt, they have the right to seek redressal from the judiciary.”
Environment vs economics
Further, it is important to consider the political costs of cleaning the air. While economic activity leads to pollution, it pulls people out of poverty in the short term, Mr. Roy explains, adding that “democratic organisations prefer short term gains which have long term losses (associated with the gains).” This means we have a trade-off between economic growth and environment protection.
Such trade-offs exist across India's multiple goals—whether economic, social, environmental or institutional—are inherent to policy making, especially in emerging economies, said Radhika Khosla, fellow at the Center for Policy Research.
Another characteristic of the air quality problem is its federal nature, which requires various State governments and the Centre to work together.
This is best demonstrated by the crop-burning issue in Punjab and Haryana. The potential political costs of preventing farmers to burn crops, which requires strict enforcement of law and incentives for alternatives, won’t be borne out by the ruling party in Delhi, but controlling that is necessary to have clean air in the Capital.
As competing political interests may not put pollution on priority for all governments, public pressure becomes crucial. “When people make a noise, governments respond. This is where consciousness would help,” says prof. Somanathan.
But apart from this bottom-up pressure in times of crisis by the public and the judiciary, several actions have been taken from the top-down, where policies have changed due to executive action, says Ms Roychowdhury. “This includes revision of emissions of thermal plant standards, regulation on construction and demolition waste and Delhi decongestion plan”.