The Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021, was recently introduced in Parliament by the Union Minister for Environment, Forest, and Climate, Bhupender Yadav. The Bill was passed by both houses and received overwhelming support. As the Bill was introduced amid the protest, many parliamentarians were against the provision that granted the Commission to collect environmental compensation from farmers for polluting air.
Air pollution is caused by a combination of gaseous and particulate pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen dioxide emitted from a point source such as factories and motor vehicles that burn fuel. Air pollution is the world’s largest environmental risk to health and a major cause of skin diseases and premature death. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air.
In 2020, New Delhi was among the most polluted cities in the world with 84 micrograms per cubic meter, whereas Ghaziabad (region of Delhi NCR) being the second most polluted city in the world. Although, air quality improved in India last year as compared to the previous years owing to the coronavirus induced lockdown, according to World Air Quality Report 2020.
THE AIR ACT 1981
The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act,1981- this was the first central legislation bill to tackle the air pollution problem in India. It was enacted in 1981 and amended in 1987 to provide for the prevention, control, and abatement of air pollution in India. The aim was to enable the “preservation of the quality of air and control of air pollution.”
But this 40-year-old law is described as “toothless” and is outdated as it does not cover modern sources of pollution. Indian cities climbed to the top position in global air pollution assessment. Even after this, there were almost zero cases filed under the Air Act from northern Indian states, although they face the worst winter pollution every year. Many parliamentarians, lawyers, and activists demanded amendments to it or to replace it with a new law to add more powers of enforcement.
On 28th October, the government of India enacted the COMMISSION FOR AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT IN NATIONAL CAPITAL REGION AND ADJOINING AREAS ORDINANCE, 2020 to set up a panel to coordinate the air pollution response between the state government of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
ENVIRONMENT POLLUTION CONTROL AUTHORITY (EPCA)
EPCA was constituted for protecting, improving, and controlling air pollution in the National Capital Region. It also assisted in various environmental-related matters in the region. EPCA was constructed by the supreme court to tackle various measures of air pollution in the National Capital Region. It was notified in 1998 by the Environment Protection Ministry under Environment Protection Act, 1998.
COMMISSION FOR AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT (CAQM)
The Ordinance that had been introduced by the Ministry in October 2020 lapsed in March this year, in the absence of the Union Cabinet’s approval. In April this year, the second Ordinance was introduced. The Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament and came into effect on 13th April 2021.
The Commission has provided for better coordination, research, identification, and resolution of problems related to air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining states. Some regions of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh adjoining the NCR where any source of pollution may harm air quality in the NCR are referred to as Adjoining Areas. It also dissolved the Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) established in the NCR in 1998.
Functions of Commission
- Coordinating actions of Delhi-NCR and adjoining states (Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) to monitor and prevent air pollution.
- Providing a framework for the identification of air pollutants in the Delhi NCR, planning and executing such plans to control air pollution.
- Relevant research and development must be done through networking with technical institutions.
- A special workforce shall be formed to deal with issues related to air pollution.
Forming actions plans for increasing plantation and addressing stubble burning.
Power of the Commission
- Restricting activities influencing air quality.
- Issue guidelines to prevent and control air pollution.
- Issuing directions on matters including inspections or regulations which will be binding on the concerned person or authority.
- The Commission can ask farmers to pay for stubble burning as environmental compensation.
The Commission will consist of:
- A Chairperson, an officer rank Joint Secretary (member-secretary), and Chief Coordinating Officer.
- A Joint Secretary (currently serving in central government) as a full-time member.
- Three independent technical members with expertise with Air Pollution, three members from non-government organizations.
- The Commission must include members from ex-officio: – from the central government and concerned state governments, technical members from CPCB, the Indian Space Research Organization, and NITI Aayog. Members from certain Ministries as representatives must be appointed.
The chairperson and members of the Commission will have a tenure of three years or till the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier.
About the Bill
Over the decades, the monitoring and management of air quality in the Delhi-NCR region have been done by multiple bodies, including the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the state government in the region, the state pollution control boards, and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) of the National Capital Region. All these were monitored by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) and the Supreme Court, which also monitors Air pollution.
The Bill tries to bring all the monitoring bodies together on a single platform to create an overarching body so that air quality management can be carried out in a more comprehensive, efficient, and time-bound manner.
However, the Commission will concentrate on improving air quality during winters. In particular, it has also been asked to suggest measures to mitigate pollution throughout the year.
The Commission is said to be the most significant air-polluting monitoring body set up by the Central government to date. The Commission will supersede all existing bodies such as the CPCB and even the state governments, and in case of conflict between order or direction by the other state government, CPCB, or state pollution control board, the order of Commission will prevail.
It will have powers to restrict the setting up of industries in vulnerable areas and will be able to conduct a site inspection of industrial units. It can also take strict actions against the neighboring states for polluting air or for not following the guidelines issued for air quality and emission or discharge of environmental pollutants.
Why was EPCA dissolved and replaced by a new Commission?
The Commission has replaced the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) which has been running for 22 years. Over the years, the EPCA has become inefficient in addressing issues related to air pollution. And it also did not have penal provisions that the Commission has.
The EPCA, which was set up in 1998, looked at the NCR; the purview of the new Commission extends to the adjoining areas as well. It was not a statutory body but drew legitimacy from the supreme court, whereas the Commission is a permanent and statutory body.
It did not have the authority to issue fines or directions and guidelines to the government in other states. It had no state representatives, unlike the Commission. Even after being in force for more than twenty years, EPCA has miserably failed in cleaning the air. Earlier, there was no single body, authority, Ministry, or state which was empowered or dedicated to ensuring coordination among the stakeholder states. There was a lack of permanent dedicated and participating mechanisms, and with this new Commission, it can adopt a collaborative and participatory approach to tackle air pollution.
Matter of Concern
There was a protest against the section of the Bill which proposes penalization for stubble burning, as the Commission was introduced amid the farmer’s protest. Many raised their voice against it. Though, later stubble burning was decriminalized for farmers or any other means of polluting. Earlier, the penal provision had imprisonment for five years and a fine of 1 crore. Later, imprisonment was no longer imposed on the farming community, but penalties did exist for other sectors and individuals. After negotiation with farmers, changes were made in the second Ordinance.
However, even after these efforts, there is a clause in the Commission which says “may impose and collect environmental compensation from farmers causing air pollution by stubble burning, at such rate and such manner, as may be prescribed.”
Parliamentarians protested against the provision to collect environmental compensation from farmers, and they demanded that this provision must be reconsidered.
Environmentalists have raised concerns regarding the concentration of powers with the Central government. According to environmentalists, bureaucrats in the Commission are nothing but only a “token of representation” of environment bodies and non-environment groups, as no such powers have been vested in them.
The Act says that no civil court will have jurisdiction to entertain any suit, proceeding, or dispute about or arising out. Order of Commission can only be conducted before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Environmentalists believe that this will restrain them from taking legal action on environmental matters as citizens so far could approach the Supreme Court and other courts directly, but with a new commission, that’s not the case.
Central governments have the majority of the members giving them more power as compared to state governments. The state government has just one member each, making them unhappy with overarching powers vested in the Commission. Numerous bureaucrats are there in the Commission, only a token of representation, and no such powers have been assigned to them.
Dissolution of EPCA: – It is said that new law is needed when the old one fails. The Centre has not even tried to implement the old laws fully. Rather, with the new Commission, the government has taken the issue of air pollution out of the purview of the judiciary.
The Commission has not set the ground rules for an air-shed-based approach-one that can be deployed in polluted areas across the country.
According to the Commission, no civil court is authorized to hear cases; the order of the Commission can be contested only before the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Air Pollution is not a localized phenomenon. It is observed that sources of air pollution in the National Capital Region there have a variety of factors affecting the air quality, which are beyond the limits. The effect is felt in areas even far from the source, creating the need for state-level initiatives through inter-state and inter-city coordination and synchronization with the help of other sectors.
Special focus is required on all the sources of air pollution which are associated with different sectors, like, agriculture, transport, residential and construction industries. The Commission should work closely with all the stakeholders and must not follow a top-down approach to achieve the intended objectives.
Democratic conceptualization-legal and regulatory changes are needed to tackle public issues like air pollution. Massive augmentation of intra-city public transport, industries, power plants, and other users to switch from polluting fuels like coal to natural gases, electricity, and renewable energy to ensure clean combustion. A thorough review of various laws and institutions should be undertaken by the government on a regular basis to ensure efficacy and utility. It must have a detailed consultation with all the stakeholders, especially those outside Delhi, which include farmers groups, small-scale industries, and the public at large.
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