Delhi smog
India Gate is eclipsed by smog in Delhi (representational image)| Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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Climate change is the biggest problem in the world. And on several occasions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed the actions that are needed to mitigate climate change and he has also said that India can lead the world in this fight.

But the efforts of his government do not match the prime minister’s words.

The recently released IQAir’s 2020 World Air Quality Report has exposed all the major claims of the government. According to the report, India is home to 35 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities. Despite an 11 per cent reduction in the annual average of PM2.5 levels due to the nationwide lockdown curbs imposed last year due to Covid-19, India emerged as the world’s third most polluted country.

In 2020, South Asia endured some of the world’s worst air quality on record, it said. Last
year, Delhi’s 20 million residents, who breathed some of the cleanest air on record in
summer months due to the lockdown, battled toxic air in winter, following a sharp
increase in farm fire incidents in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana.

New Delhi was the world’s most polluted capital for the third straight year in 2020. For the past few months, the National Capital Region has been experiencing hazardous air quality. Due to the burning of crop stubble. Delhi’s PM2.5 levels averaged 144 micrograms per cubic meter in November and 157 micrograms per cubic meter in December, exceeding the World Health Organization’s annual exposure guideline by more than 14 times, the report said.

Govt let important ordinance lapse

After the report’s release, there has been a debate in the whole country. But this report doesn’t come as a surprise. This is never a sudden thing. But whenever such reports come to light, why do we act like it’s a surprise? For a few days, our attention will be on this, like it always happens. Then we will forget it.

In September 2020, a third-year law student Aman Banka and Class 12 student Aditya
Dubey had filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking a direction upon the state governments of Punjab and Haryana to ensure a complete ban on stubble burning in their respective states.

SC appointed retired judge Justice Madan B. Lokur as a one-man committee to take steps for preventing stubble burning in October.

Then the Centre told the Supreme Court, in the next hearing, that it would create a permanent body through legislation to deal with the annual air pollution problem in Delhi and its surrounding areas.

Accepting the request, the court then suspended the one-man committee. The central government brought an ordinance for the formation of ‘Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance 2020’.

This is an 18-member commission that will be headed by a chairperson appointed by the Centre. This will have representatives from Delhi, Haryana, UP, Punjab, and Rajasthan.
The commission shall have the power to issue directions to abate pollution crisis, take up
matters suo moto on basis of complaints, stop power supply or take action against any entity or industry, the ordinance reads.

It also said offences could be punishable with a prison term of upto 5 years and a fine that may extend to Rs 1 crore or more.

Ordinances are laws that are promulgated by the President of India on the recommendation
of the Union Cabinet, which can only be issued when Parliament is not in session. They cease to operate either if Parliament does not approve of them within six weeks
of reassembly.

This particular ordinance was promulgated on 28 October 2020 and retired bureaucrat M.M.
Kutty was appointed its chair on 5 November.

Less than five months later, the CAQM stands dissolved without even an official press
communique about its dissolution. Union Environment Secretary R.P. Gupta said since the
ordinance was not introduced in Parliament within six weeks, it has lapsed and consequently, the commission also stands shut.

The government had the option to re-promulgate or present it to Parliament to convert it to an act. The lack of commitment of the government is evident from the fact that they allowed the ordinance to lapse.

The young petitioners have now moved an application before the Supreme Court for re-promulgation of the ordinance.

Air pollution is hazardous, premature deaths occur

Every 3 minutes, a child dies in India because of the toxic pollutants in the air, according to an analysis of the Global Burden of Disease 2017.

In 2017, 1,95,546 children lost their lives due to air pollution-related diseases, which means 535 deaths occurred daily on an average.

And yet, air pollution, climate change or deaths due to these are not a bigger issue in the Indian political and policy discourse. Perhaps, how to better fight air pollution does not fit neatly into current ideological battles.

Air pollution caused an estimated 54,000 premature deaths in New Delhi in 2020, according to a recent study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia Analysis and IQAir.

While the government has made big promises regarding air pollution in the Union
Budget 2021, they also let an important ordinance lapse.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated Rs 2,869.93 crore for the Environment Ministry, out of which Rs 470 crore was allotted to control pollution. The amount for “control of pollution” includes financial assistance provided to pollution control Boards/Committees and funding to National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which was launched in January 2019.

The promises made in the budget seem to be failing due to the lapse of the ordinance. It
seems that the government only talks and when the time comes for implementation, the
matter is kept into cold storage.

With this attitude, I am afraid that the air pollution project will turn out like the Ganges project. In September 2014, the Union cabinet had approved the formation of the Clean Ganga Fund to clean the river.

From the time of its conception till December 2018, a total of Rs 243.27 crore was received. But so far, only Rs 45.26 crore has been spent on cleaning the river — about 18 per cent of the total amount, an RTI revealed in 2019.

According to Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, ​“To develop is to pollute” is a foregone conclusion, now it’s time that we plan to develop sustainably and direct our investments in green deals.

Time is of the essence, especially to people in more than 70 per cent of our cities who are exposed to poor air quality consistently. The sale and purchase of clean air is already a reality, and will soon become commonplace.

There are companies that capture fresh mountain air and sell it in bottles as pure premium oxygen to countries like China and the US.

The commitment of our government is in doubt and it must go beyond lip service on this issue.

India’s fight against air pollution needs much greater focus and a longer commitment than
what we see today.

Also, citizen participation is very important. If our small actions can create such a big problem, then can’t our small changes solve this big problem?

Siddhant Sarang is a student of Delhi University, New Delhi

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great piece. Government must recognize the serious health consequences caused by air pollution and act to curb it.

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