Govt needs to move beyond the polluter-pays principle
Given the Supreme-Court-appointed Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) had limited powers when it came to taking action in states like Haryana and Punjab that play a big role in Delhi’s polluted air, it is just as well that the Centre has sought to fix this by setting up an empowered Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas; the body will supersede the pollution control boards of the states adjoining the capital and has representation from all the states.
The newly set up body shall have secretaries from five states as ex-officio members, besides the secretary of the ministry of environment and technical members, and has complete power on all issues related to environment and clean air including hefty fines and even jail terms.
It would, however, be naïve to think the Commission can fix things with the wave of a wand or that the reason for the EPCA’s failure was just the lack of empowerment or coordination between the states. Punjab and Haryana’s stubble-burning, for instance, is really a larger issue caused by both states offering farmers free water and electricity to draw unlimited amounts of water, coupled with the central government’s MSP-based procurement policies that take away the market risk for the farmer.
As a result of the over-drawing of water, both states have pushed back the sowing period for farmers and, consequently, there isn’t enough time for them to prepare the fields between crops; getting rid of the stubble that is left after the harvest of the crop is also an expensive process, and so stubble-burning is the natural result. Solving this problem requires rethinking free water/electricity and the MSP-based procurement policy, something the Commission cannot do.
An intermediate solution is subsidising farmers for Happy Seeder machines to allow them to mix the stubble back in the soil while sowing the next crop but, while the solution is well-known, cash-strapped governments haven’t been able to provide enough machines; the Commission can’t fix that.
The threat of fines and imprisonment may make a difference at the margin, but when enough farmers are involved, as the Punjab example shows, levying the fines or jailing farmers is impossible; indeed, little could be done for the same reason when Punjab refused to honour the Supreme Court verdict on sharing of the Satluj Yamuna canal water with Haryana.
While governments are happy to think of fines as solutions, they need to realise that solutions will eliminate the need for fines. Diesel gensets have been disallowed as part of the action plan to fix Delhi’s air quality, but surely a pre-requisite would be ensuring 24×7 electricity in the capital, including after shutting down thermal plants around the city?
Outlawing booster pumps is a great idea, but it has to be the Jal Board’s responsibility to provide adequate quantities of water first. More electric vehicles would help clean Delhi’s air, but this requires lower levies on buses and electric vehicles in general as well as enough charging points in the city. That is why, over time, the Commission may not fare much better than the EPCA.