Policy Action to tackle Air Pollution in Delhi

Information about the Issue:

In a Supreme Court Judgement dated December 2, 2016 (M.C. Mehta v Union Of India), the Court directed the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) to prepare and implement a plan to eliminate the problem of excessive air pollution in Delhi-NCR. Thereafter, the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) was prepared and implemented by the EPCA, in collaboration with government experts, for different Air Quality Index (AQI) categories – Moderate & Poor, Very Poor and Severe. 

Despite the implementation of GRAP in NCR since 2017, the air quality in the city of Delhi has not improved to a great extent. The government of Delhi even had to declare a Public Health emergency in November 2019 when the Air Quality Index breached the 800 mark in some areas due to pollution from vehicles, factories, and firecrackers- the primary source being the burning of crop stubble across Punjab and Haryana.

Legal Obligations of the State:

The Constitution of India, under Article 48A, imposes an obligation on the State to improve the environment, and clean air is an important component of the same. It is also important to acknowledge the various rulings of the Supreme Court, which have upheld the Right to Clean Air as a Fundamental Right. In Subhash Kumar vs the State of Bihar, the Supreme Court admitted that the Right to Life under Article 21 includes the Right to Pollution Free Air and Water since these are necessary for full enjoyment of life. The same sentiment was reiterated in MC Mehta vs Union of India, where the Court also prohibited the practice of stubble burning. In Arjun Gopal vs Union of India, the Court noted that the Right to Breathe, that is, the right to breathe clean air coupled with the Right to Health under Article 21 necessitated the elimination of air pollution. 

The Right to Health of every person obligates the State to ensure that everybody breathes good quality air or at least, nobody is compelled to breathe bad quality air. Numerous cases have helped establish the Right to Clean Air as an indispensable right for all citizens. The responsibility of the State-led authorities is to provide clean air through effective plans. The levels of pollution, despite the implementation of GRAP, are high and hence, the authorities have not been able to adequately fulfill their legal obligations to provide clean air under the current model of GRAP.

What are we doing about the issue?

We have written to the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Chairperson of the National Green Tribunal, and Pr. Secretary, Env. & Forest, Delhi, elaborating on the necessity of clean air and mentioned suggestions that can help improve the policy framework of GRAP, to ensure that the plan can be much more effective in alleviating the problem of hazardous air quality of the city.  

Our Recommendations for Improvement in GRAP:

  1. According to a Lok Sabha Report of 2018, biomass burning leads to a 26% increase in PM 2.5 levels and a 17% increase in PM 10 levels. The plan provides that residential authorities and individual house-owners should provide an electric heater to their security staff to prevent the latter from burning biomass for warmth, however, the plan has completely ignored other economically disadvantaged persons, who cannot afford such heaters and are not employed in structures which can provide them with such heaters. The said populace should be provided with alternative measures for keeping themselves warm in the winters. The plan should also be amended to append a provision that prohibits the burning of biomass.
  2. The Delhi High Court, in a suo moto case dealing with stubble burning, recognized the role of GRAP towards the prevention of pollution caused by the practice of stubble burning. Although the territory within which stubble burning occurs falls mostly outside NCR and hence the direct territorial jurisdiction of GRAP, the Centre and State Authorities, in cohesion, should consider the promotion of alternatives to stubble burning during instances of extreme emergencies within the framework of GRAP, when alternative policies are not effective to prevent the practice of stubble burning. 
  3. The threshold of the plan should be lowered to meet international standards of unhealthy levels of air. GRAP needs to become a prediction-based preventive action plan rather than a post-mortem plan. The current policy allows the rolling out of the plan only after the particulate matter concentrations are peaking in the air. This compromises the effectiveness of the plan because, by the time the plan is implemented, the pollution levels have reached hazardous volumes and caused damage to the health and ecology in Delhi. Since the Ministry of Earth Sciences has launched an air quality warning system, the same can be used to take pre-emptive action based on forecasts and reduce the PM concentrations from reaching hazardous levels.
  4. Although GRAP is being rolled out each year, the awareness regarding the same, amongst the citizens, seems to be unsatisfactory. Even though the plan provides for the dissemination of information through social media and mobile apps, awareness measures have not been implemented adequately. The mobile application prescribed in the plan should be launched with full vigour, and promoted by the government, to ensure that the general populace knows about the different aspects of GRAP. Further, as social media and mobile applications are not accessible to the entire population, the policy, in its present form, seems to exclude a large segment of the population, and hence the same should be expanded to include advertisements in newspapers, television and magazines, and other appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that the entire population of the State supposed to be benefitting from the policy must be made aware of the consequences of their action and mitigation measures being taken by the Government(s).
  5. A part of the population of Delhi NCR believes that the narratives about the ill-effects of air pollution are exaggerated. These studies divulge the need for a better awareness program within the policy about the health hazards of air pollution. The current plan prescribes dissemination of information regarding “pollution levels, contact details of control rooms, and actions that will be taken by the authorities based on the level of pollution”. The current plan doesn’t include dissemination of information about the health hazards and individual preventive action, and the same should be taken within the fold of the plan, the importance of which has also been highlighted in the previous point.
  6. The Report on the Implementation of GRAP calls attention to the fact that the deterrence mechanism in the policy is deficient. Potential offenders have not been provided with sufficient incentive to undertake responsibilities imposed on them under the plan. Better monitoring mechanisms should be developed and put in place stricter punishments for offenses which are committed under GRAP to encourage citizens to follow the plan.
  7. Diesel based vehicles, including cars, emit substantial amounts of pollutants. Although diesel-based cars that are over ten years old are banned in the capital, additional measures should be taken during high smog periods by prohibiting such vehicles altogether during the same. If such a measure is considered excessive, stickers of fuel and age on all diesel vehicles through PUC should be used so that based on the level of threat, some categories of vehicles can be prohibited on the roads. 
  8. Currently, the policy doesn’t mention any mechanism to ensure regular cooperation between the agencies listed therein. The process of implementation starts when EPCA enacts appropriate orders for the implementation of the plan and delegates responsibilities to individual agencies for the same. Following this, the Departments discuss the orders internally and take measures to implement the orders in the City. A better mechanism for cooperation between the departments should be developed within the framework of GRAP, along with a predetermined time frame to implement any measure concerning the policy.
  9. Certain terms in the policy, such as “Enhance parking fee by 3-4 times” are not well-defined. Whenever such measures are to be implemented, extensive deliberations need to be undertaken to define the measures. Such deliberations can consume an inordinate amount of time of the authorities involved and can cause a delay in the implementation of such measures. Such delays are deleterious to effective implementation of GRAP, especially considering that the plan is implemented on an emergency basis, and often on short notice. The plan should be amended to expunge ambiguous terms.
  10. The Central Government recently replaced the EPCA with The Commission for Air Quality Management, which works under the supervision of the Central Government itself. The Commission aims to tackle the problem of air pollution comprehensively by monitoring air pollution, enforcement of laws, and will look after the monitoring, research and innovation aspects as well. The Commission, whilst constituted with good intent, creates a problem by removing the supervision of the Supreme Court over the plan. The Center should recognize the value of inputs provided by the Court and provide a mechanism within GRAP to allow the Supreme Court to have a continual role in helping monitor the plan in the future. The Center should also look into enabling public consultations, and make appropriate changes to the powers and authority of the newly constituted Commission based on the suggestions received therein. 

How can you help?

  • Read as much as you can about the causes of this pollution, and try to lead a clean lifestyle, at an individual level.
  • Make yourself and others around you aware about the issue, and cooperate with the government to help implement the initiatives that they come up with, to reduce this pollution, and create a safe environment for the citizens.
  • You can share our Social Media Updates regarding this issue, to help us increase the outreach of this campaign.
  • You can volunteer to support this campaign, as per your skillset.

Write to us at [email protected].

Important Documents:

  1. Letter to the respective authorities from LQF dated November 4, 2020
  2. The Graded Response Action Plan
  3. The Supreme Court judgement for implementation of the plan