London and New York once had their great smog too. In discussions about India’s deadly smog, we haven’t asked enough: how did the West combat its air pollution problem?
The answer, in country after country, is stringent laws. And the gold standard is the Clean Air Act passed in the United States in 1963.
Recently, China has succeeded in significantly bringing down its air pollution levels. It has done so by overhauling its environmental laws with provisions similar to the US’ Clean Air Act.
So, what did the US Clean Air Act do? Most importantly, it gave the task of implementing the law to a powerful autonomous body, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), which came into being in 1970.
This is what India needs the most today. It needs its own EPA. It even considered having one.
Currently, there are many different organisations trying to combat air pollution with no top boss to marshal them all to achieve defined goals. There’s NCAP and EPCA and GRAP and CPCB and MoEF and SPCBs and god knows how many other acronyms, each one failing more miserably than the other.
Take EPCA. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority was constituted in 1986. The Supreme Court-mandated EPCA is tasked with monitoring and implementing the court’s judgments on air pollution. EPCA has worked so well that under its watch Delhi has become one of the world’s most polluted cities. Powerful on paper, EPCA has lately been weak in wielding the stick.
Besides, EPCA’s mandate extends only to Delhi-NCR. What about the rest of India? Air pollution is a national problem.
Then, there’s the central government’s belated National Clean Air Programme or NCAP, which focuses on cities. How do you stop stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana by focusing on 10 cities? How do you resolve inter-city and inter-state issues?
Then, there’s another Supreme Court-mandated mechanism called Graded Action Response Plan (GRAP). It sounds a lot like what China did. Except, China’s graded plan came into force whenever pollution was expected to go up. It was thus a preventive mechanism. Under the not-so-watchful eyes of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), the EPCA and the Delhi government, GRAP’s measures come into force when air pollution levels are already crossing acceptable thresholds. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Once again, GRAP is only for Delhi-NCR. Air pollution does not respect city, state or even international boundaries. Particulate matter flies from once place to another. The Supreme Court has taken it upon itself to resolve inter-state issues between Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. If only India had a strong leader at the helm…
The need for a boss
To imagine an Indian version of the United States’ EPA, think of the National Investigation Agency that goes after terrorism. Or think of the autonomy the Election Commission of India has in conducting elections. Or, how the Lokpal was imagined to be.
The logic for an autonomous body becomes clear if you look at the history of the Clean Air Act and the EPA in the US, or similar histories in other countries. Economic progress and environment are always at loggerheads. The government’s job, indeed its political mandate, is to chase economic progress to bring jobs and prosperity. Governments will invariably tend to side with economy than environment, unless it’s wise Bhutan we are talking about.
That is why we need an autonomous EPA to crack the whip and define how far we can go.
A dig into the archives shows the fraught history of the Clean Air Act and the EPA, the latter often fighting with federal and state governments, and the US Supreme Court often coming to the EPA’s rescue. It’s an ongoing tussle, with President Donald Trump weakening the EPA.
Yet, the EPA is so powerful that its head is given a cabinet-rank status in the US government. If a state in the US refuses to comply with the EPA’s minimum standards, the EPA can take over the environment administration of that state by law. That’s how powerful it is. Lesser powers include stopping federal funds. For the most part, EPA works with state governments to make implementation plans. Major amendments in 1977 and 1990 have strengthened the Clean Air Act to include more pollutants, greater goals, and greater implementation procedures.
The Clean Air Act shaped modern United States in a way that the rest of us, fed on the story of unbridled US capitalism and consumption, won’t realise. Yet, if the country of fast cars has well-functioning subways, it’s because of the Clean Air Act.
In 1979, nearly a decade after the EPA was established, The New York Times observed its impact on New York: “the Clean Air Act, tests show, has resulted in a cleaner environment for New York City and the state in spite of opposition by officials who said it ignored economic considerations. In addition, the act has become the major force, in revamping New York City’s transportation system and a key consideration in any new land‐use planning.”
The US once had the sort of air pollution haze that we now see in India. But it’s gone in the US, thanks to the EPA and the Clean Air Act. The EPA, of course, enforces many other laws, such as those for clean and safe drinking water. It is a mammoth body with a lot of money for research, setting standards and implementing them. That’s what we need.
Gaurav Gogoi, the Congress Lok Sabha MP, is planning to introduce a private member’s bill in the House to amend India’s outdated and weak Air Act. But his proposal does not demand the creation of a powerful autonomous national body like the EPA in the US. We need a completely new act, not an amendment.
In the absence of a powerful and autonomous central implementing body, India will continue to grope in the smog.
Views are personal.