Centre sets up permanent Commission to tackle air pollution in Delhi territory

22-year-old Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority dissolved

Published - October 29, 2020 09:45 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

A municipal worker seen spraying against the dust and pollution at Jahangirpuri in New Delhi. File

A municipal worker seen spraying against the dust and pollution at Jahangirpuri in New Delhi. File

Dissolving the 22-year-old Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) that has so far addressed air pollution in Delhi , the Centre has constituted a “permanent” body — the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas.

Encompassing Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the all-powerful body assumes several powers to coordinate action among States, levy fines — ranging up to ₹1 crore or five years of prison — to address air pollution. Brought in via an ordinance on Thursday, it awaits formal perusal by the Supreme Court before it can be brought into effect.

Also read: Delhi’s AQI inches close to ‘very poor’ category

There will be at least six permanent members and it will be headed by a former or incumbent Secretary to the Government of India, or a Chief Secretary to a State government. It has members from several Ministries as well as representatives from the States.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and its State branches have the powers to implement provisions of the Environment Protection Act for air, water and land pollution. Their powers continue. However, in case of dispute or a clash of jurisdictions, the Commission’s writ will prevail specific to matters concerning air pollution.

Also read: Only 4% pollution in Delhi-NCR due to stubble burning, says Prakash Javadekar

A major weakness, environmentalists and experts have said, in tackling air pollution in Delhi and the surrounding region, has been the inability of agencies such as the CPCB and the EPCA to consistently enforce rules on the ground. Rules to, for instance, factor in stubble burning or prevent pollution from thermal plants do exist, but these are often not strongly enforced always in States due to political considerations.

A senior official in the government said the new Commission would be empowered to constitute special investigative groups for stricter implementation but the letter of the ordinance has no detail on the creation of new cadre or groups tasked with implementation.

Also read: Air quality of NCR cities Delhi, Gurugram and Noida worsens to ‘very poor’ category

“The major issue with the ordinance will be when it comes to implementation, as EPCA had almost similar powers but failed miserably in cleaning the air even after being in force for more than 20 years. The question of whether it’s a positive move or just a distraction and wasteful exercise will be decided on the fact whether the ordinance changes the status quo when it comes to ground implementation and strict action on polluters or not,” said Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

EPCA Chairman Bhure Lal, and Member Sunita Narain said in a letter to the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on Thursday that they “welcomed” the creation of a new Commission. They also listed key contributions of the EPCA — the notification of the Graded Response Action Plan that lists out measures to be taken in case of worsening pollution, the construction of the Regional Rapid Transport System and early adoption of BS-VI fuel standards, among other measures.

Also read: Air pollution caused around 24,000 deaths in Delhi in first half of 2020: Greenpeace

“In the ultimate analysis, the effectiveness of the Commission will be determined by the choice of its permanent members, especially its Chairperson,” said Ajay Mathur, Director-General, The Energy Resources Institute. “We need to ensure that these members have the capability to bind together the States into air quality solutions that can and will solve our air quality problems.”

Describing the Commission as a “bureaucratic vessel”, Navroz Dubash of the Centre for Policy Research said in a statement: “The fact that it was created practically overnight, with no discussion and input, does not inspire confidence that it will open the doors to a more fruitful conversation and action across all interests...The Commission is a lost opportunity to explicitly set the ground rules for an air-shed based approach — one that could have been deployed in polluted areas across the country.”

Others rued the lack of diversity in representation. “Of the 15 members, only three members representing NGOs have been included. The Commission has been given power to co-opt members, but the majority are Ministries which are engaged in actions which contribute towards pollution — the Ministry of Power, Housing and Urban Affairs; Road Transport and Highways; Petroleum and Natural Gas. The only exception is the Ministry of Agriculture. Crucial Ministries missing are the Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Labour,” said environmental lawyer Ritwick Datta in a statement.

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