New Delhi: The Government of India has passed an ordinance to establish a new Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas (CAQM). This will replace with instant effect the Surroundings Pollution (Prevention and Regulate) Authority, or Epca, in addition to other committees which have been created through the years to address the crisis.
What will have to we make of this? Is this the answer to the pleas of National Capital Region (NCR) citizens and an end to the winter airpocalypse?
CAQM’s creation isn’t a trivial change, and nearly certainly represents a step-up from Epca. A new commission, with full-time members and committed staff, is likely to help address the problem of intermittent focus on air quality, supply a “consolidated and conjoint” approach, and perhaps help reinforce capacity to address the problem. CAQM will have substantial powers and can override other agencies such as the Central Pollution Regulate Board, but notably also state government departments, whether there’s a clash. This potentially makes it easier to harness the powers of government, to solve inter-agency coordination problems and set uniform standards and enforcement protocols. Significantly, CAQM will even have a convening role, backed by authority of a law. Then again, it’s not lucid how much further effective bureaucratic coordination alone gets us. There are several other impediments to achieving clean air, and the ordinance does little to conquer them.
Possibly the biggest limitation of CAQM is that it is going to replicate existing roadblocks in a new forum. Action is regularly stuck because those who lose from air pollution keep an eye on measures are in a position to block change directly or through their representatives. These include industries facing more expensive fuel, farmers being asked to change cropping practices, and car owners getting restricted parking spaces. CAQM retains the stalemate of interests across sectors (like power, Road transport, surroundings), and in the absence of clearly articulated overarching goals, introduces nothing to change this. To take action would have required CAQM to be held to benchmarks of progress in air quality. CAQM could possibly use its convening authority to cause together warring factions and hammer out a compromise on hot-button issues such as crop burning, power plant emissions, and so forth. But to take action, CAQM has to see itself in that convening and deliberative role, slightly than as primarily a rule setting and enforcing body. While it’s not excluded, the ordinance gives few indications of the former.
The ordinance also misses some key opportunities. This used to be the chance for the government to institutionalise an airshed-level approach to air quality, an idea that is now widely accepted. It could have given a framework for an airshed-level approach in different parts of the country, and then maybe have issued an NCR-specific set of rules. But an NCR-specific law signals — yet again — that the remainder of the country which experiences in a similar way severe pollution levels isn’t as important as the Capital region. Moreover, by continuing to rely on crook prosecution as the primary tool of enforcement, the ordinance misses the possibility to legally back a wider range of regulatory tools, including administrative fines that allow escalation of enforcement measures proportionate to the nature and severity of offence. The ordinance also risks underplaying the importance of evidence-based policymaking, which receives no emphasis in the ordinance.
There are areas where CAQM could further confound agreement and action. Its composition is heavily dominated by central government representatives as is the selection committee. There is little indication of mean to create processes that allow for stakeholder perspectives, including from states and civil society. Indeed, passing the ordinance with no public input does not inspire confidence that CAQM will open its doors to a more fruitful conversation and action across all interests. In a similar fashion, CAQM’s ability to override state agencies may arouse the opposition of state governments. It is tough to consider, as an example, that just because a central commission insists on limiting stubble burning that Punjab will disregard the voices of its farmers.
Much depends on how this commission will get constituted, and the rules that are issued to enable its functioning. The risk is that CAQM has been conceived as a bureaucratic hammer of enforcement, to drive the nail of air pollution regulation. But the problem is more complicated than one of enforcement alone. To address these complexities at minimum, the commission needs to convene competing interests effectively and help them develop creative solutions, hold itself accountable to ambitious but achievable targets, and seed the idea of airshed management across India.
(Navroz K Dubash is Professor, Centre for Policy Research. Santosh Harish and Shibani Ghosh are Fellows, Centre for Policy Research)