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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Panel for New Delhi’s air: role, powers, what’s new

What does it change on the ground? What is the role of the Commission vis-à-vis states? How does it help? What are the challenges?

Written by Mallica Joshi | New Delhi | Updated: October 30, 2020 10:58:05 am
Delhi, Delhi air pollution, Delhi AQI, Delhi air quality, delhi air panel, delhi AQI today, Indian ExpressA smoke gun is used to clean dust from trees to reduce air pollution near a construction site in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

With the President signing the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020 on Wednesday, a statutory authority to track and combat air pollution in and around the National Capital Region has come into existence.

The Commission, the Ordinance says, will supersede bodies such as the central and state pollution control boards of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan and will have the powers to issue directions to these state governments on issues pertaining to air pollution.

What does it change on the ground?

The one body with powers similar to the new Commission’s was the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), experts say. It was not a statutory body but drew legitimacy from the Supreme Court, which has been looking at cases of air pollution as part of the judgment in M C Mehta vs Union of India (1988).

The EPCA was not, however, supported by a legal framework in the form of a law. It did have the authority to issue fines or directions and guidelines to the governments in other states. It had no state representatives, just two permanent members. The Commission, on the other hand, will have representation from the state.

What is the role of the Commission vis-à-vis states?

The ordinance makes it clear that state as well as central bodies will not have jurisdiction over matters related to air pollution: “No other individual, or body, or authority, constituted either under the law enacted by Parliament or by state government or nominated in terms of judicial order shall act upon or have jurisdiction in relation to the matters covered by this ordinance.”

The ordinance says the Commission will look at coordination between states, planning and execution of policy and interventions, operations of industry, inspections, research into the causes of pollution etc. Experts say the ordinance means that the power to issue fines may also lie with the new Commission.

Officials in the Delhi Environment Department said the Commission will, in a way, erase the relevance of start pollution control bodies since they do not have the powers to make any autonomous decisions anymore.

“The Ordinance seems to have taken the power away from us when it comes to issues of air pollution. We still have a role to play when it comes to water and sound pollution, but over the last few years most of our work has been concentrated on air pollution. What role we can play alongside the Commission will be decided by the body once constituted. It seems our roles have been made redundant,” said a senior Environment Department official.

In case the directions issued by a state and the Commission clash, the decision of the Commission will be implemented. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How does it help?

Experts say the move doesn’t automatically guarantee action on the ground. Environment activist Vimlendu Jha said that by forming a new commission, the government has taken the issue of air pollution out of the purview of the judiciary.

“The central government has got itself out of the clutch of Supreme Court and closed down SC-appointed EPCA, but is it just strategy to self-empower and stay relevant or truly address the crisis? New law is needed when the old one fails. They have not even tried implementing old laws,” Jha said.

As per the Ordinance, only NGT, and not civil courts, is authorised to hear cases where the commission is involved.

What are the challenges?

According to the Ordinance, the committee has been formed to do away with “ad-hoc measures” and to replace them to “streamline participation” from states and experts.

The Commission has a large number of members from the central government, which has not gone down well with the states. “It is full of officials from the central government. How will states get a say with just one member each? Taking away any say from the state government is not the way to go further. Also, political differences will also now play a part in the functioning of the Commission because states are not happy with the overarching powers being vested in it,” a Delhi government official said.

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