25 January, 2021

Catch Bull By Horn

Perverse incentives won’t work in reducing, stopping air pollution unless robust checks and balances are designed and implemented

Photographs by Tribhuvan Tiwari
Catch Bull By Horn

Come September, October and November the noise on air pollution becomes really jarring. Debates, papers, data, they come in galore in print and electronic media. The courts, the tribunals shout out loud and question the governments as to what they are doing to prevent air pollution? What efforts are being made to ensure that Delhi is not the most polluted city in the world again? This is where we win the competition with Lahore, which is perhaps the second-most polluted city in the world. A win that we must not be proud of. The courts and the tribunals have been issuing orders and judgments for quite some time, but every year we find ourselves on the same boat or should one say in the same poisonous air.

Sometimes, data becomes the enemy of the problem, so let me not give you any data. The data on the number of deaths, the data on contributory pollution, because till date there is no organised action on the contributory pollution index. Now let us take an example of stubble burning and data around it. The Delhi chief minster says that 17 per cent of the air pollution is because of the stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and other states, at the same time the Union environment minister asserts that the contributory pollution of stubble burning is only 4 per cent. The truth is that both are correct because one gives the data for the concentrated 2-3 months, which are the problem months of winter, and one gives data averaged out for the whole year. So let’s not get lost in data.

What is important is the solution that is offered. And today, the solution that is being offered in case of stubble burning is to give a perverse incentive that is to say give Rs 100 over and above the MSP as an incentive so that the farmers do not burn post-harvest paddy stalks to prepare their farms for the wheat crop. This  is a good example of perverse incentive and the message itself is wrong.  

Such incentives can never work when it  comes to stubble burning. The message one gives to the farmers is that ‘you pollute, we will pay’. This kind of management of stubble burning without adequate handholding on technology or ensuring through a strong monitoring framework about those who burn will not be paid a part of MSP, is perhaps a better solution. But these are tough political decisions. Is anyone willing to bell the proverbial cat? It is important that more real solutions are found and for real solutions some hard decisions are necessary. Let us begin by looking towards such solutions one by one, by asking some fundamental questions. First, do we have a capping policy for vehicles on the road? If not, why not and for so long? Do we have a scrapping policy for old vehicles? If not, why not? Third, there are thousands of PUC Centres whose primary job is to examine the health of the vehicles who are not worthy to be on the road. The only parameters that are checked are PM 10 and PM 2.5.  There are two aspects on this. One, whether these parameters are enough to resolve the air pollution problem or the tests have to be more refined and second, whether these centres are acting without enough regulation or are they easily managed with a bit of corruption. It is common knowledge that you pay a little and get a certificate and move on. Where is the regulation of such PUC Centres?

Unless compliance becomes cheaper than non-compliance, there is very little hope to prevent air pollution.

Some more questions as solutions! Can we align our traffic lights to ensure smooth vehicular movement? Can we remove encroachments on the sides of the road in order to have smooth traffic flow? Are we really serious about preventing dust pollution? We still do not have enough cleaning vehicles on the road to prevent road dust pollution. What alternatives do we have to provide heating arrangement to all the guards who protect our homes and who do not have to burn wood and other hazardous material to keep themselves warm. Are we providing them enough warm clothes to ensure that? What provisions do we have, especially in spring, to deal with leaf litter which we burn freely? Leaf litter manure in every horticulture garden is a possibility. There are orders of the NGT as well to ensure that. Are we doing enough for that? Further two of the biggest landfills in Asia—Bhalsawa and Hajipur—are in Delhi. What are we doing to stop methane burning in such landfills? No solutions yet. The waste-to-energy plants are still a distant dream too.

The panacea that the government had thought through to deal with all such problems stated above is the latest Commission on Prevention of Air Pollution. A commission that is the combination of the powers vested with the Central government under the environment protection act, the powers of the Central Pollution Control Board and the powers of State Pollution Control Board,  and the research facility of NEERI and other research institutes at the state level and the safeguards and monitoring mechanism of the district magistrates and the police and the pollution control boards. So what’s new? It looks like old wine in a new green bottle.

Unless the capacities of the regulators are strengthened, unless human resource is strengthened, unless self auditing processes are put in place, unless self-reporting from industries through environment audits are put in place and then checked rando­mly in a sizeable sample, effective regulation may not be possible. This is not an add-on job to a police or a district administration. This is a full-time job. And, therefore, a separate cadre dedicated for prevention of air pollution is a must. Further, the command and control regime has not worked. Where are the incentive mechanisms for the potential pollu­ters? There are none. Most Western nations have tried incentive-based mechani­sms such as the deposit refund systems and other IBMs. These need to be explored seriously for India. There always have to be incentives for not polluting.

Unless compliance becomes cheaper than non-compliance, there is very little hope to prevent air pollution or for that matter any kind of pollution. It important that the framework needs to be redesigned to ensure that compliance is cheap;  compliance is possible and compliance is easy rather than non-compliance because everybody needs a breath of fresh air.

(Views are personal)

The author is a Supreme Court Advocate and Managing Partner of Enviro Legal Defence Firm

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