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Tea Sector in Assam & elsewhere: A wealth for the nation

Assam produces more than 50% of total tea in India and is famous for its rich, full-bodied cup among all other types of tea produced across the country. But India’s tea sector is currently not performing at its best and is certain to face heavy losses, if it keeps functioning with no changes. During the past few years, India slipped from holding the first position in the tea sector worldwide to fourth. Meanwhile, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka secured the first three positions. India requires better assistance from the Central Government in terms of branding, promotion and export of tea. Tea estates in Assam, Sikkim, etc. expect the same. But in contrary to that, the budget for the Tea Board has only decreased by more than 50% along with 0.4% fall in the Department of Promotion of Industries & Internal Trade. To everyone’s surprise, tea from Nepal is branded as Assam or Darjeeling tea and is sold in the international market. Therefore, the Central Government need to focus more on packaging and branding. In 2021, the finance minister announced a package of Rs. 1000 crore under Pradhan Mantri Cha Shramik Protsahan Yojana for the development of the tea estate and workers as a part of election campaign. But no initiative has been taken regarding the same. The promised amount could and still can help in providing better accessibility to sanitation and hygiene, education, maternal health care of female workers, etc. Currently, tea in Assam is grown by small producers, rather than by large industries and the former requires handholding to grow. The Ministry of Commerce (MoC) does not have such an extention mechanism, unlike the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) through Krishi Vigyan Kendras. If certain mechanism is not a possible intervention by the MoC, the responsibility can be passed on to the MoA. They can provide the sector with the necessary training, subsidies, incentives, quality planting material and pesticides. If done so, India can re-emerge as the top producer and exporter, in terms of both quality and quantity.

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It is time to regulate hate speech on social media | Opinion

Follow global examples in crafting a legal regime that imposes strict liability on intermediaries and users

Online forums are often looked at in a vacuum, but they are merely a reflection of society. In India, polarising content and hateful material on the Internet has proliferated in the recent past. Opinions that an individual would earlier hold back for fear of societal backlash have now found their safe spaces online. The Internet harbours a variety of extreme statements.

Social media today is a hotbed of toxic and hateful conversations. Curbing hate speech and fake news has emerged as a critical challenge for governments globally. But this is not just a technological issue; it is also a societal problem. In 2019, a terrorist opened fire in two mosques that killed at least 49 worshippers and wounded dozens of others in Christchurch, New Zealand. The aftermath of such terror attacks led to a new debate about how governments and civil society must seek to curtail hate speech on the Internet. The attack was live-streamed on Facebook by the perpetrator. In fact, the entire attack seemed orchestrated for the social media age. Before it took place, a post on the anonymous message board 4chan — a particularly lawless forum that often features racist and extremist posts — seemed to preview the horror. The post was linked to an 87-page manifesto filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas, and directed users to a Facebook page that hosted a live-stream of the attack. Posts on Twitter also appeared to herald the attack. Eventually, Facebook and Twitter took down the video — but not before it had been viewed by most of the world.

Countries across the world have already begun to acknowledge the issue of hate speech and fake news and how it affects the functioning of society. Germany and France have some of the most stringent policies in this regard. NetzDG or the Network Enforcement Act, in Germany, ensures tough prohibitions against hate speech, which include propagating pro-Nazi ideology. It provides strict takedown timelines, but also provides for an extension of such a deadline in the event that additional facts are necessary to determine the truthfulness of the information. The basis to decide whether any material infringes the law is based on their criminal code. When surveyed, most of the complaints received in Germany were related to hate speech or political extremism, rather similar to India.

France, on the other hand, has a transparency obligation for digital platforms, wherein platforms must publish the name and amount paid by the author in the event that content is sponsored. With regard to fake news, France has an 1881 law that defines the criteria to establish that news is fake and being disseminated deliberately on a large scale. A legal injunction is created in this event to swiftly halt such news from being disseminated. These nations are among the most proactive in content regulation. There is a need to achieve this level of efficiency, while respecting the freedoms of all those involved, right from the individual to social media companies.

It is undeniable that the consequences of the narrative that takes shape on online platforms, more often than not, have real life implications. Back home in India, in 2018, the spread of rumours, regarding child traffickers, through popular messaging platform WhatsApp, led to a spate of lynchings in rural areas. More recently, during the election campaign preceding the Delhi legislative assembly elections, an official election rally enticed crowds with the use of the slogan “Desh ke gadaaron ko, Goli maaro saalon ko”. However, in the days following this rally, a young man translated these words into reality by opening fire on protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia University, once again highlighting how hate speech has real consequences.

Fake news and hate content in India are primarily related to a person’s caste, gender or religion, which are sensitive topics for most of us. Moreover, the regulations to deal with such issues are insufficient and are also scattered across multiple acts and rules under the Indian Penal Code, the Information Technology Act and Criminal Procedure Code. The need is to harmonise and unify the existing laws. Moreover, there is a need to amend the draft intermediary guidelines rules to tackle modern forms of hate content that proliferate on the Internet. The reactive approach in the Shreya Singhal judgment gave the direction on how hate content should be regulated and the government should follow this direction, where the user reports to the intermediary and the platforms then take it down after following due process. The present legislative approach ignores due process and is, therefore, subject to abuse by the government. While security is fundamental, privacy is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and it is imperative that the government balances both privacy and security going forward.

We have now reached a juncture where hate speech is being employed by members of the ruling party in their efforts to garner support. Hate, vitriol and falsities are commonly spread to sway emotions and influence people. However, from these examples, we see that such speech does and will have consequences. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to recognise the menace of hate speech and ensure that there is proper regulation in place to tackle the issue. Though the intermediary guidelines proposed by the government are a step in the right direction, there is much left to be desired on a comprehensive framework to tackle the issue while safeguarding the freedoms of citizens.

Climate Action Requires a Whole of Government Approach

We are fortunate that a matter as grave as climate change is starting to be given due importance without being limited by the boundaries set by politics. The current and former Ministers for Environment, including Mr Prakash Javadekar and Mr Jairam Ramesh, have realized this gravity and initiated action. In the present day, Prime Minister Modi has taken the lead globally with the International Solar Alliance. During the tenure of the UPA, the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had introduced eight core missions for climate change action. This had come at a time when the enormity of the threat posed by climate change had not been acknowledged by other prominent world leaders.

In the current times, there are two major goals that India is working towards. The first among them are the net zero target for 2070 and the one-billion-tonne emission cut by 2030. There are a few pragmatic questions that need to be addressed in this regard. These include the progress made thus far, the evaluation structure put in place and periodic assessment of action taken. The Government should realize that the time is ripe to come up with a new environment legislation. It was in the 1980s that most of the major climate laws in existence now were first drafted. The Air and Water Acts were created with the knowledge and vision possible in those times. Contemporary conditions and challenges should prompt the Government to think about a new legislation, framework and/or nodal agency capable of managing them. The one-billion-tonne cuts in emission is not to be achieved from a single sector, and it cannot be achieved through the isolated efforts of the Union Government. The concerted efforts of the Union, state and local governments are required. This is why a new administrative and legislative thought process needs to be initiated.

The present Government lays much stress on solar panels and electric vehicles. But we cannot limit ourselves to solar panels and electric vehicles. The Prime Minister has initiated the International Solar Alliance and our solar production is commendable. For solar power to be useful, solar fields need to be connected to transmission and distribution networks. But that is not the case in present day India. It is crucial that we expand our horizons beyond solar panels and electric vehicles and explore what more can be done.

The transition demanded by the new climate revolution and the new green revolution will not be an easy one. In fact, it is going to be a very difficult one. For instance, the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Mr Bhupender Yadav pledged to phase down coal in Glasgow. But there is no clarity on how the workers associated with polluting sectors like coal will transition to a green economy. They are a low-skilled workforce who require adult skilling and education programmes to maintain a job. The prospective loss in jobs and unemployment is a cause for great concern. The desired just transition should not be replaced with an unjust and disruptive transition.

Even as ambitious targets have been set, India is in need of much infrastructural growth. The Government has acknowledged this need through the recent Budget where several lakh crores were allocated towards PM Gati Shakti. The construction of airports, highways, railways and other related infrastructure as envisioned in the scheme will require large amounts of coal, steel and high emission technologies. Lower-emission green-technologies must be ensured at each step. It is pertinent that an emissions framework and a system of checks and controls be put in place for a scheme of such large dimensions as PM Gati Shakti. The Minister for Environment should coordinate with his peers in Road Transport and Highways, Ports, Shipping and Waterways and other departments to arrive at a green solution.

The gravity of air pollution is gradually dawning on the authorities and the people. There is still a need to spread social awareness regarding the challenges of air pollution and climate change. In an attempt to do so, several Parliamentarians have come together and formed a Group on Clean Air. But above and beyond such informal groupings, there is a pressing need to constitute institutions capable of executing the schemes of the Government. In the absence of proper funding to institutions such as the Central and State Pollution Control Boards, there is little that they can do to run the schemes.

One of the most important stakeholders in the climate change discussions should be the farmers. The farming community is dependent on rains. While timely and adequate rains are a boon to farmers, irregular and extreme rainfall can spell doom for them. The Government should initiate comprehensive schemes and insurance policies that are equipped to deal with the uncertainties facing farmers as a result of climate change.

There is much dialogue around emissions trading and carbon accounting. But active legislative effort from the Government is lacking. The Government should consider a future legislation on emissions trading.

It is a reality even in this era that India has not attained the industrial development that most countries in the West boast of. We possess large reserves of natural beauty and biodiversity. Yet, the indigenous communities engaged in conserving and preserving it are not receiving the Governmental aid that they deserve. As a member of the Parliamentary Committee on the Biodiversity Bill, I can say that things are not the way they should be. Access benefit sharing is not executed in its true spirit. Our villages and their indigenous inhabitants need to be given economic benefits for their invaluable services. The Ministry needs to put serious thought into this.

The North Eastern Region constitute India’s most biodiverse spots. Yet today, the region’s biodiversity is under serious threat from oil palm monoculture. If the Ministry has truly recognized the value of biodiversity, a measure as harmful as populating the North East with oil palm would never have been permitted.

India should aim to stay ahead and not trail behind the rest of the world in the new climate revolution. India should not be intimidated by the dictates of the West but should instead design its own laws to take forward the fight against climate change. Several countries in South Asia and elsewhere look towards India for leadership. It is up to the Indian government to take them along in our march towards a greener and more equitable world. Rules and taxes imposed by the West, such as the European Union’s Carbon Border Tax, will badly affect industries like steel in India. The West will continue to impose measures that will make our economies bear the brunt. India too should actively consider imposing counter measures on the West because historically, it is the West that has contributed to greater emissions.

Capacity building is of utmost importance to initiate and sustain climate action. The Union Ministry has shown greater understanding on the matter in recent times. But a sensitization effort among State governments, their legislators and officers is felt to be lacking. Often times, State Action Plans are half-hearted attempts at copy-pasting. Disasters too continue to be on the rise and hence, a robust disaster management system and a prevention mechanism too should be in place.

            India’s climate action should not be limited to isolated acts of mitigation. Instead, it should be defined by a comprehensive strategy of adaptation and mitigation that offers equitable solutions to all the stakeholders involved. It is a whole of government approach that India should endorse in combatting climate change.

Union Government Must Go Back on its Proposal to Amend IAS Cadre Rules

Zero Hour | Budget Session ’22

During Zero Hour on February 5, 2022, I addressed the Lok Sabha on the harms of the proposed amendments to the the IAS Cadre Rules, 1954.

Around 10 states have written to the Union Government protesting the proposal to amend the IAS Cadre Rules, 1954. The Union Government’s argument is that there is a shortage of officers under central deputation. But during the last two years, when the entire country was fighting the pandemic, no such shortage of officers has been reported by the Government. The new proposal to amend the Rules for IAS Cadres is a move in violation of the fundamentals of cooperative federalism. This is an attempt to prevent IAS officers working in state cadres from doing their duties in an impartial manner. The bureaucracy will become another tool in the hands of the Union Government to influence Assembly elections in the future. Late Sardar Patel has said that a good All India Service would have the freedom to state their mind, the sense of security to stick to their word and their rights and privileges are protected. I hence strongly urge the Union Government to go back on its decision to amend the IAS Cadre Rules, 1954.   

Need for New Climate Law in India

Zero Hour | Budget Session ’22

I addressed the Lok Sabha on the need for a new climate law in India during Zero Hour on February 8, 2022.

At COP26 in Glasgow, India set ambitious targets for attaining net zero by 2070, reducing carbon intensity and carbon emissions by 2030 and increasing non-fossil fuel energy capacity by 2030. To fulfil the commitments made at Glasgow, India needs to come up with a climate legislation that is enabling, comprehensive and adaptive.

India’s climate law should be one that is applicable for both States and the private sector. Driving forward India’s climate legislation should be a competent, nation-wide institution backed with necessary statutory provisions. This institution should be modelled along the lines of constitutional bodies like the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Chief Election Commissioner.

The new climate law should require the Government to review existing climate change action plans to address the many dimensions of climate change mitigation. It should set a series of interim targets and enforce procedural duties for multiple stakeholders. Periodic reviews and mechanisms for reporting to the Parliament should be put in place. This should be supplemented by making all reports open to public feedback.

India’s climate law should be founded on the social consensus of workers, trade unions, communities, NGOs, industry, and all other stakeholders. At a time when the global economy is fast transforming to accommodate climate change, the law should ensure Governmental support to small and medium companies.

I urged the Government to take speedy and diligent action in this direction.

Delay in NH 37 Construction

Zero Hour | Budget Session ’22

I raised the matter of undue delay in the maintenance and repair works of NH 37 during Zero Hour in Parliament on Wednesday, 9 February, 2022. The four-laning and repair of National Highway 37 from Nagaon to Dibrugarh in Assam has been proceeding at a snail’s pace for the last six years. Originally envisioned to be completed by 2019, the construction is now expected to be delayed even beyond December 2022. I spoke about how this has caused untold sufferings to the people who depend on the highway for commute. The poor condition of the highway was making commute to both Jorhat and Dibrugarh airports difficult for travellers. Tourism in Upper Assam has also taken a hit due to the poor condition of NH 37.

The highway is unmotorable due to huge potholes, with the situation worsening during floods. Lack of initiative on the parts of NHIDCL and the Assam Government has made daily life difficult for common people. No substantive action is being taken against the companies and contractors who delay the construction without due reasons. The Assam Government has not shown enough resolve to acquire the land required for four-laning, especially in the 2.5 km stretch passing through the Dergaon town. It is even reported that the NHIDCL is considering skipping this stretch due to issues with land acquisition.

Stressing on the duty of the Government to recognize the necessity of the Highway for the people of Assam, I called the inordinate delay in completing the works an injustice meted out to them. I hence urged the Government to ensure speedy completion of the project.   

Need for New North East India Industrial Promotion Policy

Zero Hour | Budget Session ’22

I spoke about the need for a new North East Industrial Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP) during Zero Hour in Parliament on February 11, 2022. I observed that the existing policy has not led to any new private investment in the North East, even though several summits like Awesome Assam have been conducted. These have yielded only MOUs and not created any new investment or jobs. The previous NEIIPP implemented during the period of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh was extremely useful for the region. In fact, it had been credited as a successful policy by the private sector in the North East. In my capacity as a Member of Parliament, I urged the Government to scrap the current policy and pick ideas and points from NEIIPP of Dr Manmohan Singh’s period to draft a new policy.

Impact of Electric Vehicles on Clean Air

On 31 August 2021, I convened a roundtable conference on “Impact of Electric Vehicles on Clean Air” for the Parliamentarians’ Group on Clean Air. Shri Bhagwanth Khuba, Honourable Minister of State for New and Renewable Energy, delivered the keynote address in the conference organized with the support of Swaniti Initiative. Ms Akshima Ghate, Principal, RMI, presented an overview of India’s electric mobility scene. She was followed by Ms Harkiran Sanjeevi, former Deputy-General of NITI Aayog, who spoke on the potentials of electric mobility. Fifteen Parliamentarians from both Houses and across party lines attended the virtual conference.

I began my introductory remarks by stressing on the need for recognizing air pollution as a health issue. The lasting impact of air pollution on human lungs and its potential to cut life expectancy makes it a chief health hazard of the present times. Some of the concerns raised in the conference by the honourable Members of Parliament included underutilization of funds and resources allocated under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle (FAME) II, low participation levels of Urban Local Bodies and lack of public awareness on air pollution. The conference was able to effectively address the merits and demerits of India’s existing electric mobility schemes. Flaws in implementation were pointed out and key issues were brought to the Minister’s notice.

Several suggestions evolved out of the discussions in the conference. Some of them are expedition of the National Hydrogen Mission, building capacity of state governments and Urban Local Bodies, and targeting high-scope areas like public transport for EV deployment. Diligent e-waste management and improved and wide-spread charging infrastructure were also stressed on.

The conference concluded with the hope that the discussions and suggestions would be noted by the Honourable Minister and that the Government would move towards their implementation.

Formed in 2019, the Parliamentarians’ Group on Clean Air aims to initiate parliamentary and constituency-based efforts to attain a future of clean air. It has been committed towards convening, informing and engaging with Members of Parliament on issues of air pollution.

How to plug gaps in the law to prevent and control air pollution

Initiatives such the Commission for Air Quality Management are steps in the right direction, but penal provisions against polluters will need to be made simple and stringent.

Image credits: The Indian Express

In 2019, I submitted a Private Member’s Bill (PMB), drafted in consultation with civil society and experts, proposing amendments in the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. The Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021 passed in the Monsoon Session resonates with multiple proposals put forward in my PMB, and is a welcome step. The establishment of a national-level authority was long felt to efficiently coordinate between States. However, there still are critical gaps in the Act, which I explain below.

First, numerous pieces of evidence show the relationship between air pollution and health. In 2019, our country accounted for 1.67 million deaths owing to air pollution, which necessitates according prominence to the impact of air pollution on health in the Act. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) should be included in the Commission to undertake regular research and assessment of the effect of air pollution, especially, on the health of the elderly, children and others. Such an arrangement would enable the Commission to devise its approach based on evidence generated. The Commission should also be encouraged to continuously engage with civil society and scale up innovative practices and technology.

Second, as Peter Drucker says, “What is measured improves”. Therefore, the Commission must set a future roadmap in terms of its target like decoupling emissions from growth, reducing exposure of vulnerable populations, decreasing the economic burden of disease among others. To do this, the Commission may propose indicators like emissions per unit Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population’s vulnerability to exposure, urban PM2.5 mortality burdens, per capita green space and the number of clean air days to monitor the impact in the envisaged direction. Targets identified should then be tracked and measured like indicators under SDGs are clearly identified and tracked. We are doing it for SDGs, so I see no reason for not including air pollution under an institutional framework. Also, instead of placing an annual report in Parliament, it should publish a biannual state-wise ranking of performance on its website to incentivise states’ performance and foster public engagement. Further, in the interest of transparency, the legislation should also provide for a third-party performance evaluation.

Third, the Act’s limited geographical extension to the Capital of Delhi, NCR and adjoining states (Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) is a major drawback to the cause as it deprives fellow citizens of their right to clean air. Therefore, the scope must be immediately expanded at least to the Indo-Gangetic plains including the states of Bihar and West Bengal and subsequently, to the entire country as air pollution is not a localised phenomenon.

Fourth, the provision of limiting adjudication to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is concerning as members of both the Commission and the NGT will be appointed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The Act also violates the principle of federalism by allowing disproportionate representation from the states in comparison to the central government. It is furthered by the superseding of the Commission’s decisions over state governments in case of a conflict.

Last, it flouts the international principle of “polluter pays” by restricting payment of fines to Rs 1 crore. This might enable bigger industries to access a creative loophole, wherein they can get away with a limited fine instead of a proportionate penalty. It is pivotal to not limit the monetary responsibility of a polluter and adopt an approach of “proportionate penalty” without any upper limit. Additionally, with regard to the contravention of the provisions of the Act, it would be prudent to add a form of penalty that is effectuated immediately on the polluter, such as withdrawing of welfare benefits or other concessions provided in an industrial area.

Given the debilitating levels of air pollution in the country, the Act needs to be strengthened to reflect the true legislative intent of tackling the issue of air pollution. Therefore, I strongly believe that the issue of air pollution must have a critical space while we debate, innovate and take actions towards building a more resilient public health architecture in a post-pandemic world.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express on August 16, 2021.

Covid-19 Management in India: Lok Sabha Discussion on December 2, 2021

For India’s 139 crore population, Covid is not merely a pandemic. Instead, it is something that every citizen has experienced or suffered in some way or the other. This discussion on Covid is important because we have seen the sufferings caused by Covid in our families, villages and constituencies. Yet even during this time of pain, the Government has forgotten the state that our country was in during the second wave. The government seems to have forgotten the fear among our senior citizens and other dear ones. By letting its guard down in the fight against Covid, the Government is sending out the wrong message to its citizens. I remember PM Modi’s words in January 2021 that India has conquered the fight against Covid. We all know what happened after that.

Orphaned Children: I think of all the children who were orphaned during the pandemic and am at a loss for words to describe their pain. Does the Ministry of Women and Child Development have any data on how many women and children contacted their helpline during the pandemic and lockdown, and what action was taken in this regard?

Hunger, Wasting and Anaemia: The Global Hunger Index 2021 ranked India at 101. The National Family Health Survey has found that anemia and extreme wasting is rampant among children. The Government’s data is counter to the claims made by the ruling disposition that there is no hunger or wasting in the country.

Persons with Disabilities: The Government should disclose data on how many children with disability attended online schooling and how many persons with disability received ration s through the PDS system in the last two years.

Rahul Gandhi’s warnings: In 2020 February, Rahul Gandhi warned the Government against Covid. Yet the Government paid no heed. In 2020 September, he asked that vaccine development be initiated. The Government sold what vaccines we had to other countries, facing serious lacks when it was time to vaccinate our citizens. Warnings against the pandemic’s effects on the economy also fell on deaf ears. A look at our villages will show how much unemployment has worsened due to the pandemic.

Scarcity of resources: Government hospitals were unable to supply the necessary ventilators, oxygen cylinders, medicines and even doctors. The scarcity was so severe that we had to source them from abroad. Why wasn’t this situation foreseen and necessary preparations made? No one will ever forget the corpses that rose in the Ganga, no one will forget the children who had to stand watch as their parents died gasping for air.

Tax the rich, not the poor: Our brethren have lost jobs and slipped into poverty. Yet the Government added fuel to the fire by increasing LPG and petroleum prices. The country saw a very real scarcity for ventilators. There is present a black market in the country. While the Government has sufficient money for completing its Central Vista project, it says there are no funds to help the poor citizens of the country. Doesn’t the Government have four lakhs to help the kin of those who died in the pandemic? If the Government was so strapped for cash, why didn’t the Government ask the rich corporates or public sector banks? Instead, the government chose to tax the poor farmers to fund its vaccine drives.

Unrecorded Covid deaths: The portal of the National Family Health shows that May 2021 recorded 3 lakhs extra deaths when compared to May 2020. Yet our Covid deaths seem mysteriously low. Do the common people not have the right to know the truth?

Vaccination: Even vaccination has been outsourced and privatized in this country today. Does the Government have data on the doses administered by private hospitals? Does the Government have data on how much was unutilized of the 25% that was allotted to private hospitals? The Government is yet to device a booster dose policy. Neither is there a thought on vaccines for children. There has no action to reduce the gap between the two doses of the Covishield vaccines. The Government increased the vaccine administration on the PM Modi’s birthday, but on the days leading up to it and the days after it, there was a severe fall in the number of doses administered. Why is the Government allowing these ups and downs in its vaccination drive? Our vaccine certificates have the PM’s photo. No other country has done this. When we defeated polio as a country, no single leader rushed to take the entire credit.

Plight of first-line workers: Has the Government given any thought to the travails of ASHA workers and other first-line workers involved in the fight against Covid? Has the Government considered raising the pay for ASHA workers at least during the pandemic months?

Areas requiring Government intervention: Looking at the economic recovery, one cannot turn a blind eye to the informal sector. The rich have become richer at the expense of the poor who became poorer. We have learned that our Primary Health Centers are strapped for resources. We have learned that our poor students couldn’t access online education as they did not possess electronic devices.

The Government is actively conducting various media campaigns in the country. While such campaigns are helpful in reaching a large audience, the Government needs to be cautious to spread not lies but only the truth. It is not the signs of a good leadership when a government rushes to take credit for all the gains and shies away from any blames for its shortcomings.

Unpacking Political Narratives Around Air Pollution In India

(Transcript of my views expressed in a roundtable organized by the Centre for Policy Research.)

I.

If parliamentary questions were to be seen as a proxy for awareness on air pollution, it may be seen that the issue is gaining a lot of importance. How has the air pollution debate evolved as a mainstream political issue?

The graph of parliamentary questions regarding air pollution and air quality shows an upward trend since 2015-16. The same applies for media articles too, with initial attention focused on Delhi. In 2016, the first civil society public movement against air pollution happened in Jantar Mantar, directing a lot of public attention towards the issue. Subsequently, a lot of negative articles on a number of top polluted cities in the world being in India have come up. Any government concerned with such rankings and India’s poor performance would be sensitive towards the issue. Over the years, the impact of air pollution on health has had a good amount of research going into it and much awareness has been generated. The perception of the effects of air pollution has evolved from that of a visually displeasing phenomena of smog and haze to a critical health issue. But over the last year and a half, air pollution is competing with Covid for political priority on the national level. At state levels, air pollution is competing for priority with a host of other health and environmental issues that too deserve the attention of the authorities.

We are where we are now due to three key initiatives:

  1. National Clean Air Programme
  2. 15th Financial Commission
  3. Commission for Air Quality Management

Now that we have these initiatives in place, it is our duty to ask probing questions, and demand transparency and efficient implementation from the government. The Parliamentarians Group for Clean Air, an informal grouping of parliamentarians, is now focusing on the National Clean Air Programme. It is also creating awareness among MPs. Standing Committee chairpersons also need to take initiative to get more data on the initiatives against air pollution.

II.

What are your perspectives on stubble burning being raised as a big contributor to pollution? What is the role of the Central Government in what is a multi-state problem?

Stubble burning is an episodic, geographic issue concentrated around Delhi NCR. Stubble burning cannot be used to explain away the pollution in Maharashtra or West Bengal or Assam. The base of pollution all year round is high and unhealthy. Hence when there are occasional spikes caused by firecrackers and stubble burning, it will rise to severe levels. It needs to be understood that it is the year-long high pollution rate that is taking air quality indices to even higher levels during these occasions. We should not be starting our conversations on solutions to air pollution by bringing up stubble burning first. These conversations must begin by addressing the causes of pollution that keep the indices high throughout the year. These solutions include very simple steps that have been talked about since long but have not been implemented well.

The strategy should be to go by sources. the first source is vehicular emissions with a basic solution of increasing public transport, reduce private vehicles. and focus on renewable energy sources. The second source is industry emissions. CPCB and State PCBs evaluate these emissions, acting more on court judgments. Solutions should focus on making our institutions capable of performing their jobs. The third source is biomass burning. We’ve been talking about municipal waste management, eliminating biofuel from kitchens, etc. Fourthly, power plant emissions can be dealt with by switching to renewable energy and reducing our coal-dependence.

Amidst the discussion on stubble burning, we should not forget any of the base sources.

III.

We need to be thinking of a whole of government approach. Do we have the imagination for a governance structure that can respond in that way, is that part of the discourse at all?

The CPCB and state PCBs are composed in a different way from the CAQM. CAQM has very high-level representatives from different ministries, but does not have a Health Ministry representative. It is also restricted to NCT. I recommend that this should be made a pan-Indian Commission It has got the formula right, but its scope needs to be widened. I’ve moved a Private Members Bill on similar lines which is yet to be introduced. Stubble burning is a very technical issue that has scope for state level interventions, entrepreneurship, innovations, difference in cropping patterns and a whole lot of other measures. But the politics over it are not likely to be resolved in the near future. The debates over stubble burning display the understanding that poor farmers cannot be forced to adopt high-cost alternatives. Most MPs are on the side of the farmers and feel that they need to be incentivized and supported in their transitioning from stubble burning.

IV.

How do you resolve the power tensions likely to come up between a Central agency, like the CAQM if its scope were to be widened, and state agencies? How do we think about new institutions versus strengthening the current ones?

My PMB had these functions which are with the CAQM brought in to the CPCB and SPCBs. A multi-sectoral composition focused on annual reports, transparency and research was envisioned. The Government has constituted a similar institution but with its scope limited to Delhi and the NCR. It will lead to some amount of turf war, but this is the way forward unless the Government brings these functions into the SPCBs through legislation modifying the Air Act. The Government’s thought now is executive-driven. The advantage of legislation is that it will bring about a decentralized approach instead of a large central body. The latter is not very feasible in a country like India with diverse issues and solutions. It is much more logical to vest more powers and functions in the State boards. On a different note, even if one looks at the PDP Bill, the Government has gone for an all-powerful agency in the Centre. As we have seen in various cases, the centralized and decentralized approaches both work and fail too. 

V.

The Finance Commission’s grants to local governments also raise similar questions. Do tying funds in this way undermine the capability of local governments to respond to such complex challenges?

Capacity building of institutions at the local levels – we are yet to find out how to effectively do capacity building. What is working in the current structure, for initiatives like the Swachh Bharat, is a very centralized system often driven from the Prime Minister’s office. We need to elevate air pollution to such a level for heads of States take this up. There is a lot of sensitization among heads of states that needs to be done, especially in the Indo-Gangetic plains. We need to bring out more research on the impact of air pollution on children, health, lifespan, etc. not only on people of Delhi but across the country. Air pollution made it to the manifestoes of all parties in Delhi, but somehow its still remaining in Delhi. Go deep to build capacity of institutions and go up to sensitize heads of States as well.

VI.

When it comes to parliamentary deliberations, one question on the citizens’ minds is – what does that lead to?

Parliament is for ensuring transparency. We are getting information out through our questions. Information housed in a remote Department is brought out to the public domain by the responsible Minister themselves, bringing in a system of accountability.

VII.

What are the steps to be taken to make air pollution a central political issue?

Politicians react to the portrayal of their own jurisdictions/constituencies in the public domain. Hence, more research on the state of affairs needs to be brought out. Not all issues need to be politicized for it to gain national importance.

VIII.

The debates on air pollution often tend to focus on private solutions to a public problem. When issues get so deeply polarized and elitist, how do you think of trade-offs?

All governments, given their commitments to climate change and health will be coerced down the path of having more public solutions. This has to be facilitated with adequate research in the field.