On Thursday, when Delhi’s air quality dipped to its worst since January 2, the National Capital Region got a new pollution management agency. The Centre issued an ordinance to constitute a commission to cut through the smog that has been keeping its date with the capital’s air with unfailing regularity for over 10 years, defying a succession of agencies and court orders. The new commission has the mandate to address the chief failing of the agencies that were so far been responsible for clearing NCR’s air pollution — lack of coordination. The 18-member body will “bring together Centre, states and other stakeholders on a collaborative platform”. On paper, this seems to be the first step towards bringing focused attention to the NCR’s air quality, a requirement that has remain unfulfilled because state governments have not seen eye to eye, authorities like the Supreme Court-mandated EPCA and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) have tended to work in silos, and departments responsible for transport, industry and health have rarely taken ownership of the crisis. Much will, however, depend on the new agency’s working protocols. Already there are fears that a body helmed by bureaucrats may not be a significant departure from the past.
The commission will supersede all existing bodies, including the CPCB as well as state governments in matters of air pollution mitigation. The 22-year-old EPCA will be dissolved. These agencies had been constrained by a lack of enforcing capacity. The new commission will reportedly have more powers — in its constitution and scope as well in terms of punitive provisions. However, a growing body of reportage shows that it’s their impracticability, insensitivity to ground realities, and not enforceability deficit, that have rendered past practices such as bans and penalties ineffective. Apprehensions that the new agency could mean more of the same have gained ground because Thursday’s ordinance talks of a Rs 1 crore fine or five years’ imprisonment or both for violators of pollution control norms.
The NCR’s pollution problems are a complex interplay of the fallouts of lifestyle choices of its residents — the large fleet of personal vehicles, for instance — agricultural practices in its neighbourhood and the region’s geography. While coordination between authorities is, no doubt, a precondition for clearing the air, these have to be founded on policies that enable behavioural changes — ones that facilitate greater use of public transport and incentivise farmers to give up stubble burning. Without such efforts, the commission will remain another top-down endeavour.