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Does India’s federal structure make it impossible to solve inter-state air pollution crisis?

Delhi-NCR have been enveloped in toxic smog for the last few days and the average air-quality index stood at 494 Sunday.

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Delhi-NCR have been enveloped in toxic smog for the last few days and the average air-quality index stood at 494 Sunday. Every year, Delhi battles post-Diwali pollution and smoke from stubble burning in adjacent states. While Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has once again blamed Punjab and Haryana, Punjab CM Amarinder Singh accused Kejriwal of “playing” politics and sought Centre’s intervention.

ThePrint asks: Does India’s federal structure make it impossible to solve inter-state air pollution crisis?

Union & state govts have one-point agenda of winning elections, that’s why the blame-game

Subhash Kashyap
Constitutional law expert

India’s federal structure is unique and is unlike any other federal system across the world. In fact, the word ‘federal’ has not even been used in the Constitution.

India is a union of states, and these states draw their powers from the Constitution. They are not sovereign states, like in the US, where people have citizenship of the state as well as the federation.

The Indian Constitution has clearly defined the relationship between the union and the state – note, it is not between the Centre and the state.

As far as the Indian Constitution is concerned, it doesn’t come in the way of solving the pollution problem, or any problem for that matter. The state and union governments should act in close cooperation, not confrontation. Neither the union nor the state governments are concentrating on doing their duty. They have a one-point agenda of winning elections. That’s why every issue gets entangled in a blame-game between governments.

New Delhi is a union territory, not a state. By that definition, it is administered by the union government. The Delhi assembly and the Delhi government have limited legislative and administrative powers, while the overriding powers reside with the union government.

Sanitation and environment come under the state’s purview, and therefore, stubble burning is an issue that should be resolved by the state. However, when the state authorities need a clearance from the union government, the latter should be forthcoming.

What is happening in Delhi is unfortunate. If both union and state governments perform their duties, there will be no problem.

Centre must lead the initiative to make sure that no state is ill-treated

Somnath Bharti
Founding member, AAP

We need to understand that pollution knows no boundaries. It doesn’t differentiate between the people of Haryana-Punjab and Delhi. The focus of every democracy should be its people. When pollution is caused by stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab, it harms the people of those states first.

Our federal structure is such that one party can’t rule all states at the same time. New Delhi’s governance model is different – where the state government has some powers, but overriding powers remain with the central government. In such situations, concerns of the territory must be resolved by all the stakeholders.

Delhi gets its water through Himachal Pradesh, via Haryana. If there is no cooperation between Haryana, New Delhi and Himachal, this will not be possible. No state can be fully independent in terms of natural resources. There has to be federal coordination and cooperation.

Union minister Prakash Javadekar was duty bound to call a meeting, after cancelling it thrice, of the chief ministers of the northern states and arrive at an understanding on how best to tackle air pollution. Centre has to play a crucial role in striking a balance in the interest of the states. Centre must lead the initiative to make sure that no state is ill-treated because of the vested interests of the other states.

When it’s about people, no party can ignore the situation, no matter how powerful they are. The ultimate power resides with the people and they exercise it every five years.

Management of Delhi-NCR’s environmental crisis exposes the lop-sided development of India’s federalism

Balveer Arora
Chairman, Centre for Multilevel Federalism

India’s federal structure follows a top-down approach where the Centre interacts with the states vertically but has not encouraged states to sort out their problems through horizontal groupings and forums.

The case of managing the environmental crisis in Delhi-NCR is a symptom of this lop-sided development of federalism. The fact that the Centre disposes of a wide range of incentives and disincentives to nudge the states towards a preferred course of action is widely known. To invoke the responsibility of the states without adding its own contribution to resolving the problem is just seeking alibis.

It is obvious that all environmental issues and public health issues, like an epidemic, are not governed by territorial boundaries on the map of the Union of India. It is very difficult to circumscribe geographically because air and atmosphere are not divisible.

It is for the Centre to take decisive action and the lead in solving problems that concern more than one state because of the weak development of horizontal federalism. The Centre has to assume responsibility for issues that go beyond the jurisdiction of one state or Union Territory, just as it does for the inter-state river waters or inter-state trade and commerce. The moment a matter crosses the boundaries of a single state, the Centre has a role to play.

Also read: How Delhi’s air crisis can be resolved by curbing paddy cultivation in Punjab, Haryana

Delhi needs Centre-managed regional coordination council comprising Haryana, Punjab, UP

Chandra Bhushan

I don’t think federalism is an impediment in taking action against air pollution. The action has to be bottom-up as well as top-down. Bottom-up action covers steps taken by local authorities. In Delhi and adjoining cities, the role of municipal corporation is extremely important. Top-down measures include those taken by the state and central governments.

The state government’s role is to ensure that municipal corporations are empowered to take action and that sources of pollution like industrial waste, vehicular emissions are tackled through better compliance and enforcement.

The central government should provide national collaborative framework and an overarching legislation under which both state and local authorities can work. Our Constitution provides a clear division of powers between the three arms – union, state and local bodies. We have to implement that constitutional provision. I don’t think the current provision is deficient in any way to tackle air pollution.

What Delhi needs is a regional coordination council involving four states – Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi – to tackle air pollution. This regional council, chaired by the Centre, should take decisions that are implemented at the state and municipal levels. This is a good federal structure to solve air pollution.

Pollution must be tackled at source and the “polluter pays” principle must be uniformly applied

KBS Sidhu
Special chief secretary, Punjab

The answer to the above question is essentially and emphatically in the negative. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 is a central enactment which extends to all the states. Causing air pollution is not only a criminal offence but also attracts civil penalties.

Air pollution arises out of a number of sources like industrial effluents and chimney draught, mining and excavation, construction and demolition, and vehicular emissions. Burning of paddy stubble is contributing only a small percentage to the air pollution in Delhi. It is elementary that pollution must be tackled at source and the “polluter pays” principle must be uniformly applied.

Punjab has taken pro-active measures to stop paddy stubble burning. The state’s farmers, 70 per cent of whom own less than five acres of land, are already stressed under heavy debt and cannot be expected to incur additional cost to tackle the paddy stubble. This cost must be borne by the Narendra Modi government. If an additional bonus of Rs 100 per quintal is given to Punjab’s farmers, it would work out to around Rs 1,700 crore per annum.

Playing politics and disseminating misleading information with the help of media or selectively passing on the blame to each other is not going to solve the problem. Anyone who is not a part of the solution is essentially a part of the problem. And, that problem is not India’s federal structure.

Also read: Delhi pollution crisis turns into political issue, and it’s not good news for Kejriwal

By Taran Deol, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. The contention of the Punjab Chief Secretary that stubble burning contributes only 8% to the N India pollution is so much hogwash. Viewing of openly available satellite pictures shows very clearly that the N India smog originates in Punjab.
    He himself says polluter pays. So The farmers of Punjab and Haryana should pay. Apparently they cannot pay because they are heavily indebted. Then they should not grow rice. Persuading them is the bounden duty of the Hon (or dis-Hon?) Chief Secy. He would certainly be within his rights to ask for a budget to do a persuasion campaign and much bigger budget for turning the alternate crop into ethyl alcohol.
    If any one has doubts I refer them to Shekhar Gupta’s analysis of the whole issue.

    • Given the stressed condition of most farmers, they may not be in a position to pick up the entire tab. In principle, Delhi should not mind contributing financially to the solution. Consider the purely economic – quite apart from the health – impact of such poor air quality.

  2. Air, water, forests and wildlife must be treated as national assets and central government should be held accountable for their maintenance (or lack of it). India needs an environmental agency that can investigate and take corrective action on such issues, overriding any interference by the states. Biosphere and environment cannot continue to be a state subject because the slogan of ‘Swaach Bharat’ has been a vision from the top. Let the citizens of India get evidence of realisation of that vision.

  3. In fact, cooperative federalism alone can solve such complex problems, sharing of river waters being another example. Nor does one subscribe to the theory that it is necessary for the same party to be in power at the Centre and the concerned states to secure optimal results. There should be one silo, operated once in five years, for winning an election, forming the government. Beyond that, this is a complex, diverse nation that requires different groups to work harmoniously together, with the Centre playing a coordinating role. 2. On this issue, the CMs of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi should be ad idem.

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