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Centre Brings in New Commission with Enforcement Powers to Crack Down on Pollution in Delhi-NCR

It is that time of the year again when pollution grips Delhi-NCR, plagued by the various factors including seasonal stubble burning that tops off inaction from a Delhi government least bothered to address the issue beyond press conferences and inconvenient measures that make little impact like a ham-handed odd even policy.

Forced in part by the inaction of the Delhi government, the Centre has now decided to take the pollution challenge head on. While the Modi government, through its National Clean Air Plan (NCAP) has been extremely serious about it, the latest announcement shows its intent to address the persisting crisis in Delhi-NCR in a comprehensive manner and not through piecemeal solutions.

Ordinance to Tackle Air Pollution Comes In

News18 reported that the Modi government on the night of 28 October 2020 issued an ordinance, making pollution an offence with a jail term of up to five years and a penalty of up to ₹1 crore.

The ordinance also entails the setting up of a Commission for Air Quality Management for the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining areas in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Commission will have 18 members, including 10 bureaucrats and 8 experts and activists, and will be headed by a full-time chairperson who has been a secretary to the government of India or chief secretary of a state.

The Commission will look into three broad areas – monitoring of air pollution, enforcement of laws and research and innovation. The issues that the Commission will tackle include stubble burning, vehicular pollution, dust pollution and all other factors that have deteriorated the quality of air in Delhi-NCR.

The commission has also been given powers to lay down norms for environmental pollution and emissions, and will have the authority to inspect premises, close down polluting units, and issue orders for disconnection of power and water supply as part of enforcement.

Accountability of the Body Outlined

What makes the present effort unique beyond its coverage of geography and the issues is the legislative accountability. As per the ordinance, the commission will submit its annual reports to Parliament. This present body shall replace the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for the National Capital Region or EPCA and all other bodies to make it the exclusive authority on air quality management for Delhi-NCR.

The ordinance has come after the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court during a hearing that it found the present mechanisms proving to be ineffective in tackling air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. There has been controversy about the effectiveness of EPCA, with eminent pollution activists and environmental lawyers questioning its high handedness and conflicts of interest in the past as well. Questions have also been raised on the effectiveness of its approach to tackle air pollution including the implementation of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP).

One must also point out that the Arvind Kejriwal led Delhi government had been pulled up last year for its inaction on the pollution in Delhi. In November 2019, the Supreme Court had asked why the Delhi government was insistent on implementing odd-even restrictions only on cars when their share of overall pollution was significantly low, and not take action on several other measures like burning of garbage, managing construction and demolition waste, and cleaning up road dust.