Pollution in Delhi NCR: The legal viewpoint

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

Environmental deterioration and climate change are an important part of our existing reality, whether we like it or not, or whether we choose to believe it or not. The global community is collectively facing the repercussions of climate change arising out of said environmental deterioration.

India too is facing a number of environmental problems, and at the heart of the country stands its National Capital where the air quality has reached epically bad proportions.

In the face of this impending crisis, the Supreme Court on November 4, 2019 asked the Governments of the three adjoining states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to put an immediate end to stubble burning and further warned them that the entire administrative machinery would be held accountable if even one instance of stubble burning was detected.

The court has also declared active penalization of activities like construction and demolition, garbage burning in open dumps, stubble burning, using diesel generators and burning coal. The court further expressed deep agony over how a civilized nation like ours is facing such a monumental crisis.

Background:

On November 1, pollution surged so high that SAFAR India (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) recorded the capital’s overall air quality index (AQI) at a ‘severe’ 425. The question that comes to mind after looking at these shocking figures is how did the air quality in Delhi get so bad and why it keeps getting worse.

Now it is to be understood that a host of factors have been working together in creating this perilous situation. Over the years, as population in Delhi has grown, so have construction activities. Construction being both a necessity and a sign of infrastructural development in the Country has been on the horizon perpetually.

We are no strangers to the fact that construction activities contribute generously to all sorts of pollution, especially air pollution. In addition to this, fumes which are emitted from industries and factories, smoke from diesel generators, cars and vehicles, burning of garbage in open dumps, storing of dry sand in open storage units, cutting down of trees, etc have over the years slowly but surely intensified the pollution in the city.

More importantly, however, it is to be seen that most of the air pollution that is choking the city is coming from the adjoining states and as a result of the topography of North India, the pollution is getting trapped in the city.

The smoke flowing in from the stubble burning mixes with the city’s pre-existing pollution to create the smog that has enveloped the heart of the country. Also, the air current in the region during this time of the year is unusually slow and this allows the dirty air to linger.

Causes of the Pollution:

The above mentioned statement lends credence to the fact that stubble burning in the neighboring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh is a key contributor to the rising pollution level in the city. Also, despite the ban on crackers by the Supreme Court, people continued to burst crackers on Diwali which has further worsened the air quality.

Besides this, the other factors causing pollution levels to rise in the city are the multiple construction and demolition projects that are being carried out in the city day in and day out.

The pollution caused by the traffic in Delhi is another menace. Vehicular emission is simply accentuating the situation for the worse. The unplanned and haphazard growth in the population of the city has put unimaginable strain on the environment.

Additionally, the rapid industrial growth and disposal of untreated waste and poor standard control has led to further deterioration.

Right to pollution free environment under Article 21:

Environmental deterioration is a very serious issue that not only affects us in the present, but also poses great threat to the future generations. The need to preserve and protect both the environment and by extension our lives, has been envisioned in Article 21 of the Constitution. It has over time been established that the right to good environment falls within the scope and ambit of Article 21 as an appendage to the Right to life and Personal liberty.

In Subash Kumar, the Court observed that ‘right to life guaranteed by Article 21 includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life.’ This was reaffirmed in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India.

The case, concerned the deterioration of the world environment and the duty of the state government, under article 21, to ensure a better quality of environment. The Apex court has time and again ascertained the importance of the right to a healthy environment as an extension of Article 21.

Steps taken by Government to minimize pollution:

To battle Delhi’s killer smog, the government took the following steps to control and reduce the pollution level:

  • The Odd-Even Scheme; ban on entry of trucks and enhanced parking fees in places to reduce vehicular transmission.
  • Notifying and equipping hospitals to be prepared with proper equipments and staff to deal with the patient load.
  • Ban on Civil Construction and Strict compliance of Graded Response Action Plan.
  • Closing of schools to protect the children from exposure.
  • Distribution of 15 lakh masks among the public.

The government has employed these steps to bring down the pollution level but what is truly needed is proper and efficient implementation of plans and programmes and policies that will ensure that such a situation does not arise at all.

Public reaction:

The immediate reaction of the public has been one of anger and disappointment, rising level of pollution and government’s incapacity has led to such resentment. The people have taken to social media platforms to express their anguish, criticizing the government and lamenting over the irresponsibility of people in general.

People have also been giving tips on how to battle the smog and have been discussing ways to reduce it. Many people have also participated in demonstrations and protests to express their discontent. The Chief Minister of Delhi NCR has himself gone to the extent of calling the city a “gas chamber” therefore conveying just how fatal the situation has gotten this year. 

Probable way forward: The most efficient way forward is by firstly reducing the persisting pollution levels by whatever means necessary. From there onwards, it is to be the joint responsibility of both the government and the citizens to work unanimously in preserving the environment and doing so consciously.

The government has to make better policies and enforce them vigorously, while the citizens are expected to cooperate with the government and do little things at an individual level to help keep pollution levels down and the environment healthy for themselves and their children.

We should not have to wait for something big like this to happen to awaken our instincts; it is our moral responsibility to stay vigilant at all times to ensure the eradication of such instances completely.

–This article is brought to you in collaboration with Samina Khanum from Jogesh Chandra Chuadhuri Law College, Calcutta University.

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