In 1985, social activist and lawyer M C Mehta filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking the closure of Shriram Industries, operating in a dense area of Delhi. MC Mehta vs Union of India would go on to become a landmark environmental case and, over the coming decades, the basis for a slew of orders to check air and water pollution – including the setting up of the EPCA or the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the National Capital Region of Delhi.
With the Centre now bringing in a new ordinance for the setting up of a Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, a body that will see the EPCA getting dissolved, Mehta says the battle against air pollution lacks not laws or committees, but political will.
“The problem is of lobbies such as the vehicular lobby… If it weren’t for the intervention of the courts, very little would have got done,’’ says Mehta, adding the Commission’s composition of primarily government officials – from the Centre and states – is therefore a matter of concern.
Difference in size, power
A key difference between the new commission and EPCA are their size and composition, as well as powers. The commission, Additional Secretary (Environment) Ravi Aggarwal says, will have 17 members, drawn from across sectors and even from NITI Aayog, ISRO and NGOs. The EPCA had seven members, two of them permanent. While EPCA had some powers, the commission has powers as well as duties, which means that it is “accountable and has to show results”, Aggarwal says. The EPCA's main function was to assist the Supreme Court.
“If the government did its job, there would be no need to set up commissions, or for people to approach the courts. The manner in which the ordinance was brought in, overnight, without a proper discussion, was also inappropriate,’’ he says.
Navroz Dubash, professor, Centre for Policy Research, reiterates Mehta’s stance, saying an effective executive would have been able to curb air pollution. “There should be a well-designed executive body with defined public space within it representing all sectors, because the problem of pollution is multi-sectoral. The intent of the Commission is off-kilter. It seems to view the problem of air pollution as one of enforcement, whereas it is a political problem – one of political will,’’ says Dubash.
Dubash was appointed to the EPCA when it was reconstituted in 2018. In 2019, he resigned “because I didn’t feel I was being effective in EPCA, where the members had little input”.
He adds that persistent problems will continue despite the Commission. “Take, for instance, stubble burning. Farmers have relevant questions of why they are being targeted and not the transport sector,’’ he say.
The Environment Ministry, however, points to fundamental differences between the EPCA and the new Commission to say that the new body will be more effective. Additional Secretary Ravi Aggarwal says, “The Commission, unlike the EPCA, has the power to appoint officers and IGs of different states are also members of the body – which is what you need for effective implementation.’’
The Commission can also take suo motu cognizance of violations or act on complaints. “These were powers that had been given to the EPCA as well. But in two decades, the EPCA did not take a single suo motu action and did not receive any complaints….The EPCA has been a failure not just of governance but also of civil society groups. They did not address citizen grievances at all, which they were meant to do,’’ says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.
EPCA chairman Bhure Lal as well as member Sunita Narain did not comment on the matter.
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