With the festive season around the corner and paddy stubble all set to start burning, the air quality of India's northern states is likely to worsen in the coming days and weeks. While Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced an ambitious winter action plan to combat air pollution, after the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority was disbanded, there is a massive confusion at the ground level over who is the implementing agency of pollution control norms.
Actually, there is no independent agency whom the political dispensations will trust and who has the goodwill to bring together all northern states at one table to fight pollution. The newly constructed Commission of Air Quality Management is yet to become proactive and it is well-known that the Central Pollution Control Board has little to contribute.
Air pollution is not a Delhi-centric problem and that's why considering the ongoing farmers' agitation and the Punjab elections around the corner, bringing all the states to one table is the need of the hour. If this doesn't happen, then people, already under COVID-induced distress, will be forced to face the brunt of massive air pollution in the coming days.
Why Kejriwal's plan alone can't improve air quality
Kejriwal has come up with an ambitious 10-point winter action plan to combat air pollution. This includes measures to stop stubble burning, anti-dust campaign, stopping the burning of garbage, ban on firecrackers, installation of smoke towers, monitoring pollution hotspots, setting up green war rooms, strict monitoring of the green Delhi app, constructing eco-waste park, and bringing down vehicular pollution.
Last year too, the Delhi chief minister had announced a similar plan to combat air pollution.
However, according to a report published in news agency PTI, Delhi saw more polluted air in November 2020 than in 2019. There is no doubt that this happened due to massive stubble burning in the neighbouring states according to the data published by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).
According to PTI, "This research institution observed Punjab alone had witnessed 76,590 incidents of stubble burning this season, which were 55,210 in 2019. Maximum incidents of stubble burning were recorded between 5 November and 7 November." This shows that only the winter action plan of the Delhi government cannot do much to bring down the air pollution.
Why Delhi often fails to implement any plan
In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a blanket ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR. Despite the Supreme Court order, Delhi witnessed rampant firecracker burning. This problem of implementation is nothing new in the National Capital.
Being the capital of India, Delhi has a trifurcated power structure. On one side there is the Delhi government, while on the other the police are under the Central Government's control; then there are the municipal corporations of Delhi. For example, in Kejriwal's winter action plan there are measures against road dust pollution. The implementing authority, in this case, is the municipal corporations of Delhi, as the maintenance of the majority of roads come under them and the MCD is ruled by the BJP. So, very little implementation happens due to this trifurcated power structure.
Post EPCA dissolution, confusion over GRAP implementation
Until last year, the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) had overseen the pollution control measures in the NCR. But with the formation of the Centre's Air Quality Management Commission, the EPCA was dissolved last year. Under the order of the Supreme Court from mid-October to mid-March, the graded response action plan or GRAP comes into play in the NCR. GRAP was formulated by EPCA to tackle air pollution and it has several measures based on the air quality which the authorities must implement.
As per the new law, the air-quality management commission is the implementing authority of the GRAP, but last year there was massive confusion on the implementation of GRAP. To implement these measures, there is a need for centralised communication and coordination between the states like Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The new commission has done very little except one or two meetings to build up this trust among these states.
Centre should bring all NCR states to one table
One of the key reasons for air pollution is the change in temperature during this time. But issues like stubble burning also play a key role in the deterioration of air quality. Paddy stubble burning largely happens in Haryana and Punjab, currently ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, respectively. Delhi is ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party, and that is why coordination between these states is the need of the hour.
To stop the menace of stubble burning, Punjab and Haryana should come to an agreement and the Central government should help facilitate this.
Why overdependence on GRAP is not the solution
GRAP is an emergency action plan which comes into play during the time of air pollution. This means that by the time GRAP is implemented, the air quality has already worsened. With the formation of the new commission, the Central government should have been much more focused on developing a year-long action plan to combat air pollution.
This action plan should work across the year and by this over-dependence on the GRAP will go down. An emergency action plan like GRAP or a state-centric winter action plan by the Kejriwal government cannot bring any solution to the problem of air pollution. These can bring some respite, but the problem will remain the same.
The author is an independent journalist and former policy research fellow with Delhi Assembly Research Centre. The views expressed are personal.