A month and a half after Delhi experienced a spell of seriously unhealthy air, two announcements offer a window into the thinking of the Central authorities on pollution. On Thursday, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ban on burning waste in open places, across the country. “Violators shall be liable to pay environmental compensation of Rs 5,000 in case of simple burning, and Rs 25,000 in case of bulk waste burning,” the NGT bench said. The same day, Union Minister of Urban Development, M. Venkaiah Naidu, said that the Centre is contemplating making a parking space certificate compulsory for car buyers. Congestion and garbage disposal are serious environmental problems. But the two proposals betray familiar faults in the ways authorities have tried to deal with such problems. All too often, cleaning up the environment becomes a matter of punitive actions directed by the courts — including the NGT — or short-sighted policies. It is not difficult to see why the air in the country remains unclean and the rivers remain dirty even after a plethora of court directives and government policies.
Take the case of the NGT ban on waste burning. The green tribunal had passed a similar order in April 2015. But reportedly, fines imposed by municipalities, in pursuance of the NGT order, did precious little to curb the problem of open waste burning. Dealing with the problem requires concerted efforts involving municipalities, resident welfare and business associations, individual households and private garbage disposal agencies. The green court is not to be blamed for the lack of such coordination in Indian cities. But shouldn’t it have learnt from the failure of its 2015 directive?
There are surer ways to deal with congestion than asking car buyers to produce a parking space certificate. A fair number of cities across the world have had reasonable success in curbing pollution when they introduced congestion taxes. The growing aspiration for automobiles is the sign of an emerging middle class. But a rapidly increasing fleet of private cars is also a sign that all is not well with a city’s public transport system. There are enough examples from across the world, and scholarly literature, to prove that a combination of economic disincentives and a robust public transport system can keep the number of private cars on the road to a reasonable level, and in turn check congestion and pollution. Agencies charged with protecting the country’s environment would do well to pay attention to them, and also learn from past mistakes.