In the fight against air pollution, needs of the most vulnerable should be put first.
According to WHO estimates released Tuesday, one-eighth of all deaths in the world are due to air pollution. The smog and haze in Delhi’s skies were noticed nationally and globally, and drew attention to the urgent need to clean the capital’s air. Comparisons have been drawn between Delhi and Beijing’s pollution levels, and the respective government responses. While Beijing holds air pollution as an unequivocal priority, Delhi squabbles over the merits of pollution data.
The juxtaposition of Delhi’s air quality with that of Beijing, and the attention to scientific data alone to redress the rights of citizens, however, is shallow. It is critical to pay attention to the right to clean air because it entails specific individual entitlements and obligations of the state. Rights are an important legal tool to redress environmental issues. They recognise moral entitlements and are based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination. They equip citizens with tools for redressal through information and participation.
The battle for Delhi’s air was laid out in the civic discourse of the 1980s and subsequent Supreme Court judgments relating to the closure and zoning of industries, and the conversion of buses, autorickshaws and taxis in the national capital region to CNG. These rulings were augmented by a plethora of pollution-control laws and bodies such as the Saikia, Bhure Lal and Mashelkar committees to explore the scientific aspects of pollution and how to curb it. The general conclusion was that the right to clean air can be realised by fixing urban transportation and through effective industrial zoning. But now, the court is once again deliberating on pollution in the city and the health rights of its citizens, especially since vehicular pollution in Delhi has skyrocketed.
Air is a common resource, and the right to clean air is integral to human rights and our constitutional right to life. Hence, protecting air quality is a prime duty of the state. The right to clean air should be universally applicable and non-discriminatory. However, as seen in the aftermath of the CNG ruling, the clean-up of Delhi’s air was an exercise that was narrowly restricted to the regulation of some sectors. The harm was relocated to the periphery of Delhi by shifting polluting units there. While the national capital region reported a decrease in particulate matter, it burgeoned on the outskirts.
While the green movement in Delhi was guided by scientific data, it didn’t pay enough attention to how it impacted different sections of society differently. In particular, there was no regulation focused on controlling continued…