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| Last Updated:01/02/2019

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Use the power of the Air Act to fight pollution

The mind-numbing results of a major global study released last week by the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation highlight once again the severity of the air pollution crisis in India.


The problem is not that India has made no effort to reduce air pollution. Air-quality monitoring across the country has been stepped up. Emission standards for power plants have been proposed although they are in danger of being diluted or delayed. Perhaps most important, the central government mandated that new passenger and transport vehicles meet BS VI emission standards by 2020, and lowered the limits on sulphur content of fuels. In the special case of the national capital region, a graded emergency action plan has now been prepared.


Yet, these and other ongoing efforts are unlikely to improve the air quality situation to the point where pollutant levels meet the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS). Why? A recent report from the Centre for Science and Environment has a few of the answers.


First, India has not set any self-imposed deadline for meeting the NAAQS. Nor does any city or state faces economic and legal consequences for missing the air-quality goals. Contrast that with the situation in the US, where each state must prepare an implementation plan for cities within the state that do not meet NAAQS pollution limits and face economic and legal consequences for missing the air quality goals. In India, state pollution control boards (SPCB) and cities have prepared such plans only in response to court orders, and without regular updates or oversight.


Second, the SPCBs rarely if ever exercise their powers to prevent usage of dirty fuels and equipment, burning of garbage and agricultural residues, or pollution from industrial plants.

Third, although the Environment Protection Act (EP Act) of 1986 gives the SPCBs power to regulate vehicular emissions within their jurisdictions, the SPCBs currently have no control over vehicle emission certification, in-use emissions testing, or enforcement — which renders that power illusory. In the future, SPCBs should get involved in carrying out in-use surveillance testing in collaboration with vehicle testing agencies to ensure that the on-road emissions of vehicles match the certification values.


One plausible solution is to consolidate all aspects of vehicle emissions and fuel quality regulations under the provisions of the Air Act of 1981 and the Environment Protection Act of 1986. Vehicular air pollution accounts for a quarter to a third of the pollution burden in cities across India. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the SPCBs cannot be held responsible for not meeting the NAAQS if they cannot clamp down on one of the major sources of air pollution.


No changes would be needed in the Air Act or EP Act; indeed, India’s first vehicular exhaust emission standards (in 1990) and fuel quality specifications (1996) were set under the EP Act. Nor do the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act prevent the EP Act from creating an oversight body or from giving detailed instructions to any agency. The power to give directions and set rules to regulate environmental pollution under the EP Act are broad and consistent with the public health objectives of the clean air law. Since the primary goal of vehicle emission standards is to improve public health, it makes more sense to regulate those emissions using the powers of the Air Act.