Foggy superstructure
Down To Earth|November 16, 2020
It is unclear how the new commission on air pollution will fit in the federal framework, but its formation asserts the role of the executive and limits the judiciary
ANUMITA ROYCHOWDHURY

ON OCTOBER 26, President Ram Nath Kovind signed an ordinance to form the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas. This move, in one sweep, erases all other committees and authorities that were set up under judicial and administrative orders, and seeks to limit the role of the judiciary, creating a centralised, supra-framework for air-quality management. In its enhanced role and responsibility, curiosity abounds on how the executive will now move towards tougher decisions.

Recognising that air pollution requires action at the airshed level, the ordinance asks for a consolidated approach towards monitoring and elimination of pollution sources. The commission will have the power to coordinate with the Union and state governments on multisector plans, including those on industries, power plants, agriculture, transport, residential and construction (see ‘New framework’).

The critical departure, however, is the attempt to limit the role of the judiciary. The ordinance states that the commission is the “highest degree of democratic oversight for effective implementation” and will function under elected representatives with regular reports to Parliament. The implication of this superstructure for the federal framework is not yet clear. The ordinance states that, “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.” It is not clear how the state governments in the region (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan) will take decisions on mitigation or set higher level of ambition. Though the commission will include members from key Union ministries and states (officials of the level of secretary to the Government of India and chief secretary to the state governments), its power to issue directions and entertain complaints will be under Central political supervision. It is not yet clear how the states will respond to this.

SUPRA-GOVERNANCE

Everyone likes the idea of good governance and an effective executive. If this is an occasion to redefine the role of the government and its enabling powers for the regional clean-up, it is important to consider what has stopped the executive from doing it till now under the current legislative framework (see ‘New air pollution commission a cosmetic step’ on p20). Were the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, or the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, not sufficient enablers for the clean air plans to get translated on ground at a scale and speed needed? Why did Delhi-NCR require judicial intervention?

NEW FRAMEWORK

The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas will have powers to imprison defaulters and impose financial penalties

On November 5, the government published the names of the first Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas in the Gazette of India. The 15-member commission, headed by M M Kutty, former secretary to the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, includes chief secretaries of states in the National Capital region (NCR), independent air pollution experts, representatives from nonprofits, and technical experts from the Central Pollution Control Board, the Indian Space Research Organisation and the NITI Aayog.

The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020, provides for setting up of the commission to improve identification, research and resolution of issues that impact air quality in NCR and the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Headquartered in Delhi, the commission will have powers to curb activities that affect air quality, prepare guidelines to check air pollution and issue orders to concerned individuals or authorities. Failure to comply with the commission’s orders will invite a fine of up to ₹1 crore or a jail term up to five years or both. The National Green Tribunal will hear appeals against the commission’s orders.

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