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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Not by the rulebook alone

Regime of laws is not enough to deal with pollution. Civil society has to take ownership of the issue

November 15, 2020 1:39:39 pm
delhi pollution, delhi air pollution, delhi air quality, delhi aqi today, delhi stubble burning, delhi city newsThe air quality in Delhi remained very poor. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Written by Vishavjeet Chaudhary

Every year, come winter, the air quality in Delhi depletes to an alarmingly dangerous level. In most of the past two weeks, the air has been described as “severely bad” and “hazardous”. Top doctors have advised against physical activity, even for healthy people, to avoid straining the system. Particulate matter levels are, in some places, more than ten times the safe limits. Some of the matter in the air can cause long term damage to the lungs and to cardiovascular health. This situation really demands urgent, decisive and collective action.

The sources of pollution are many, and it will be unfair to attribute blame to any one class of people. The pollution in the National Capital is a mixture of vehicle emissions, industrial emissions, construction dust and smoke. Delhi’s geographical location means that the relatively calm breeze is unable to blow away the pollution, thus it all stagnates in the area. Winds blowing from Punjab and Haryana also bring with them smoke from paddy stubble burning.

The Supreme Court, on various occasions has said that the right to a clean environment is a fundamental right. The Supreme Court has clearly said that Article 21, which guarantees the “Right to Life” extends beyond that. It has been decided that the right to life includes the right to a clean and healthy environment. The Court has gone to the extent of even banning public smoking — to protect the right of non-smokers. Recently the Court rightly commented that the PIL filed in relation to pollution should not be seen as an adversarial one- pollution impacts each one of us and curbing it is to everyone’s benefit.

Historically, legislative intent has been similarly progressive. The Constitution, in the non-enforceable Directive Principles of State Policies mandates the state and citizens to nurture a healthy environment. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) act of 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 both seek to provide a clean environment. The National Green Tribunal, as well the states have banned stubble burning, yet it is rampant. The Delhi government also implemented the ‘odd-even scheme’ to curb pollution last year.

The Parliament too has acted — the Supreme Court has put its committee on hold. An ordinance has been formulated making a national body that replaces the Environment Pollution (prevention & control) Authority (EPCA), formed in 1998. The new body will have powers to search and seize under the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973- it can also fine up to one crore rupees and/or impose a jail term of up to 5 years, cut power supply of violators and issue warrants.

Law has its limitations — and this saga demonstrates it most vividly. The Courts and the Parliament have both shown initiative in curbing the menace of pollution, yet the impact is negligible. The coercive nature of law can only do so much. In order for laws to be effective, at least a majority of the population has to abide by it. Simple coercion is usually not enough to command compliance.

We all need to acknowledge that pollution is a problem created by us. Steady and quick demands for wheat and rice, indiscriminate construction, usage of vehicles- all have contributed to the problem. Blaming certain groups of people will certainly not help. Unfortunately the discourse, in the past, has very swiftly been unfairly polarised. The ban on sale of fireworks for instance was seen by some as an attack on religion. Similarly ban on stubble burning has been seen as an additional financial burden that already strained farmers have to incur.

We need to constructively assess what the problem is, first and foremost. Then, sustainable, collective action needs to be taken to remedy it. Simple coercive measures will most likely not work, and neither will blaming others. Measures like offering alternative methods of clearing fields and trying different crop combinations need to be encouraged. Vehicular emissions need to be cut- efficient and safe public transport needs to be made readily available. Industrial emissions should be constantly monitored and financial incentives too should be made available to ensure compliance.

A basic principle of life has been to leave the world a better place than the one you came in. We have made tremendous progress in fields of science and technology. Things, some as basic as good healthcare, that once were the preserve of the elite is becoming more accessible and affordable. Food production is increasing, as is the ability to move about. Yet, it all comes at a cost- and that has been the tremendous pollution levels. We need to unequivocally act, and act fast. The cruel irony is that we are choking on our own development.

The writer is a Delhi-based advocate

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