New Delhi: The Centre issued an ordinance late Wednesday that makes pollution an offence with a jail term, that can go upto five years, and a fine of Rs 1 crore.
But another important aspect of the ordinance is that it disbanded the decades-old Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) and ordered the setting up of a new commission that would be responsible for air quality management.
EPCA was set-up on the orders of the Supreme Court and notified by the Centre on 29 January 1998. Its powers were similar to those enjoyed by the Centre — it could issue directions in writing to any person, officer or authority, initiate prosecution against violators and also secure the presence of officials from departments and municipal corporations.
Headed by former bureaucrat, Bhure Lal, EPCA assisted the top court to issue several directives to curb air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR) and also monitored implementation of the measures issued in judicial orders.
Among some of the significant measures it suggested were the conversion of diesel-run commercial vehicles to cleaner CNG fuel, the construction of expressways to decongest Delhi from polluting trucks, a ban on entry of trucks in Delhi, and the fast-track sale of BS-VI passenger vehicles (cleaner fuel technology cars).
Advocate M.C. Mehta, on whose petition filed in 1985 the top court had ordered EPCA’s constitution, said he had apprehensions about the functioning of the proposed commission.
“Most of its members are bureaucrats, who on account of their ministerial work, will not be able to devote much time to this cause. Also, this commission will be unable to take independent decisions like EPCA did,” Mehta said.
However, senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan welcomed the ordinance. “Finally, the government has woken up. EPCA was an abject failure, mindlessly filing reports,” he said.
ThePrint takes a look at what the new body will do and the legacy EPCA leaves behind.
New body to replace ‘inadequate, haphazard & temporary’ EPCA
With the ordinance in place, the Centre’s January 1998 order made under section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, now stands repealed and EPCA’s authority dissolved.
Instead, an 18-member commission will replace the body and any other executive panel to “streamline public participation, inter-state co-operation, expert involvement and persistent research and innovation”.
The ordinance noted that the Supreme Court had to devote “its precious time” in constituting various ad-hoc or permanent committees at various stages to oversee the problem of air pollution in the NCR and suggest mitigation measures.
It also made a reference to the top court’s 16 October order that appointed a one-man commission headed by Justice M.B. Lokur to prevent stubble burning in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, one of the major causes for air pollution in Delhi.
However, this order was kept in abeyance after the central government informed the top court on 26 October that it was contemplating a new law since the enforcement by EPCA and other bodies have not proved effective.
EPCA was constituted with an objective of protecting and improving the quality of the environment, and was also mandated to enforce the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) that usually kicks in between October and January when air quality is at its worst in the NCR.
It was reconstituted with 20 members after the expiry of its last tenure in 2018, and included the director general of TERI, the chief executive office of the Centre for Energy, Environment and Water, and a former professor of surgery at AIIMS.
On Thursday, the Centre placed the ordinance before the top court when it took up the petition on stubble burning. The matter is to be heard next Friday, giving the Supreme Court bench time to “look at the ordinance”.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, who appeared for the petitioner in the case, told ThePrint that he too would give his suggestions to the court on the ordinance.
According to the ordinance, the commission will “replace the inadequate, haphazard and temporary committees or commissions or authorities or bodies at present either appointed judicially or administratively”.
All appeals against the orders of the commission will lie only before the National Green Tribunal and no other body will have the authority to pass any directions or prosecute a complaint on pertinent issues.
Every regulation made under the ordinance shall be laid before the Parliament.
CNG diktat on all commercial vehicles
In its first recommendation, EPCA suggested the court to direct all taxis and autos to switch to a clean fuel, ban all eight-year-old buses, except those on clean fuel, and gradually move the entire bus fleet to a single fuel — compressed natural gas (CNG).
The top court in July 1998 accepted EPCA’s report and issued a slew of directions that also included a ban on commercial vehicles more than 15 years old. As a result, over the course of the next four years, the commercial vehicles in Delhi gradually converted to CNG.
The order triggered protests and strikes, but the top court refused to reconsider its decision. However, it monitored which sectors had priority access to CNG supplies, in case of shortages. Non-compliance resulted in fines, and by December 2002, all diesel city buses converted to CNG.
Construction of expressways
On EPCA’s suggestion, the top court in December 2001 banned entry of non-destined commercial trucks to Delhi, i.e., trucks that were only passing through the city. These vehicles could enter the capital only on payment of a toll tax for transportation of goods to and from Delhi.
Subsequently, in January 2003, EPCA mooted the Eastern and Western Expressways as a bypass for trucks to decongest Delhi. There was an inordinate delay in the completion of this project, which finally became operational in November 2018 when the prime minister inaugurated the Wester Peripheral Expressway.
The two expressways, according to EPCA, diverts more than 50,000 heavy vehicles away from Delhi.
Green cess imposed on trucks non-destined for Delhi
Continuing with its crackdown on trucks, the top court in October 2015 imposed a green levy — an environment compensation charge (ECC) of Rs 700 on light goods vehicles and Rs 1,300 on heavy goods vehicles entering Delhi.
Accepting EPCA’s proposition, the top court also passed tough rules for toll collection. It ordered toll collectors to put in place radio frequency identification systems at the nine main entry points in the city by 30 November 2015. For the remaining 118 entry points, the systems had to be set by 31 January 2016.
A year later, the top court imposed a 1 per cent green cess on the ex-showroom price of diesel vehicles above 2000 cc in NCR. The cess was part of EPCA’s report suggesting measures to reduce vehicles running on fuels that add to air pollution.
No BS-IV vehicles after 1 April 2020
Sale of Bharat Stage (BS)-IV vehicles was banned after 1 April 2020 following EPCA’s suggestion that only vehicles compliant with BS-VI emissions norms be allowed on sale.
Bharat Stage emission standards are standards instituted by the government to regulate output of air pollutants from motor vehicles.
EPCA had endorsed fixing a deadline for the sale of BS-IV vehicles following the government announcement that it will directly switch from BS-IV to BS-VI grade fuel.
Ban on auto-rickshaw registration
In 1997, the top court had banned registration of new auto-rickshaws after EPCA gave a report to cap the total number of new permits. A year later, the Delhi government launched an incentive programme to replace the existing auto-rickshaws, which were run on petrol, with those running on CNG.
In 2011, the apex court restricted the number of autos on city roads to 1 lakh.
On 28 February last year, EPCA submitted a fresh report, recommending that the cap on registration of three-wheelers be removed, provided these vehicles are BS-VI compliant and run on petrol/CNG.
To begin with, it asked the court to consider raising the cap by 20,000-30,000 since BS-VI compliant three-wheelers running on CNG had reduced emission limits by 80-90 per cent from the time the cap was imposed. The top court is yet to accept this report.