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Right move: How data on pollution source will help take concerted action

The Supreme Court asking the Centre for a comparative study of pollution from firecrackers and that from vehicles is the approach that has been lacking in India’s fight against pollution. Governments, both the Centre and the states, as well as the courts have often favoured piecemeal solutions that have popular appeal.

How data on pollution source will help in taking action
How data on pollution source will help in taking action
How data on pollution source will help in taking action
How data on pollution source will help in taking action

The Supreme Court asking the Centre for a comparative study of pollution from firecrackers and that from vehicles is the approach that has been lacking in India’s fight against pollution. Governments, both the Centre and the states, as well as the courts have often favoured piecemeal solutions that have popular appeal. But, rarely has such an approach had a meaningful impact. The Delhi government, for instance, lobbed the odd-even initiative on the national capital twice in 2016—and brings it up now and then when there is talk of acting against pollution—but, as a report by the Central Pollution Control Board shows, the move did nothing to improve air quality. That is hardly surprising because, as the 2016 IIT-Kanpur study pointed out, the largest source of PM2.5 and PM10 pollution in the national capital is road dust, while industries are to blame for the lion’s share of its NOx pollution; vehicular pollution—within which two-wheelers were worse offenders than cars—contributed just 9%, the report had noted.

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The SC, in the present instance, was mindful of the impact banning crackers could have on the fireworks industry, especially in terms of rendering thousands unemployed while there isn’t much in terms of social security that could see fireworks industry workers through if they were to be reskilled. The court also wondered whether such a ban would stand the test of Article 19 that allows citizens to practice any profession or trade/occupation; given the fireworks industry isn’t an illegal one and licences have been granted for these to function, a ban would surely violate the Constitution? This is certainly a welcome change from last year when the apex court ordered that people could burst crackers on festivals and special occasions only between 8 pm and 10 pm and only “green crackers” were to be allowed—and the year before, when it banned crackers altogether in the national capital. Read against the fact that Harvard-Nasa estimated crop-stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab accounts for 50% of the pollution in Delhi between October and November—Diwali, when the maximum cracker-related pollution occurs, is observed on an October/November date—the myopia of banning crackers is revealed. This is not to say that there should be no action on making crackers less polluting—the Centre has told the apex court that expert agencies tasked with coming up with a template for green-cracker production already have a composition formula and are now in the experimentation stage—or that the odd-even de-clogging of Delhi’s roads wasn’t a welcome relief. But, banning crackers or imposing odd-even as part of the arsenal against pollution have shown limited efficacy, and the courts and the government can’t keep falling back to these to assure the masses that action is underway.

The National Green Tribunal, late last year, termed (in an interim order) the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to shut down Sterlite’s copper smelting plant in Toothukudi as “unjustified”. Even though there were violent protests against the plant for allegedly polluting the air and its effluents poisoning groundwater, the order exposes serious flaws in the approaches to green governance that various authorities have adopted—though it is possible that either the NGT underestimates the impact of Sterlite’s emissions and effluents or Tamil Nadu makes too much of it. What is needed instead is thorough research and updated data on pollution. If a comparative analysis of the sources of pollution the apex court has asked is done, concerted green action can be taken, instead of the episodic, knee-jerk moves being made.

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