Cleaner air


Coming after 15 years, the revision of air quality standards, announced by the union environment minister Jairam Ramesh last week, has been much delayed, but is nonetheless welcome as an important step to clean up our cities and towns. Air pollution is a serious health hazard against which citizens have little defence. What is needed is preventive and remedial measures in the public sphere.  Fast urbanisation, increased industrialisation, exponential growth in the number of motor vehicles, absence of effective rules to check pollution and tardy implementation of whatever there are have all combined to cause a steady deterioration of air quality. Respiratory diseases are on the rise and air pollution is estimated to result in over five lakh deaths every year in the country.

The new standards are on par with those in Europe and higher than those in the US. The permissible level of pollutants in the earlier list has been lowered and six new pollutants have been added to measure pollution. Another  important change is that the rules are the same for industrial and residential areas, with no relaxation for the industries. They also provide a legal framework for enforcement, with the citizens being empowered to approach the courts for necessary action. However, enforcement is not easy and the combined efforts of governments, local institutions, corporate and other bodies are needed for that. The government has planned to implement better auto emission and fuel efficiency standards and automobile manufacturers will have to comply with the safety norms. Public transport systems will have to be improved and urban planning reoriented to meet new requirements.

All this will call for more investment and action on the part of many agencies. More importantly,   attitudes and habits also need to change. Increased public awareness and commitment on the part of official agencies are required. But the challenge is not impossible to meet, as the Delhi experience has at least partially shown.

The key to clean air is effective implementation of the standards and monitoring of the results. The strategy should be a mixture of liberal incentives for compliance and strict penalties for violation. The proposed Green Tribunal Bill, which envisages setting up of tribunals which have the same powers as civil courts for settlement of environmental disputes, should be passed expeditiously for better enforcement of the new standards. The adoption of the new standards will also make the country’s position in the climate change negotiations stronger.

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