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Air pollution: CAQM’s role is still hazy – editorials

People in the national capital and nearby areas spent almost half of last week breathing severely polluted air. The concentration of ultra-fine PM2.5 and fine PM10 particles in the air was over 10 times the level considered safe for breathing. Blanketed by a layer of smoke and fog, the outdoors were hazardous for the young and the elderly. In the last five years, this description will hold true for possibly any random period of time in the winter. The problem became such that this year, the Supreme Court appointed retired Justice Madan Lokur to oversee the efforts of several disparate authorities — only to be convinced by the government to walk back on the move after it appointed a new statutory body, the Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM).

With statutory powers that cut across federal lines, CAQM was billed as a super commission, comprising officials from several states and agencies that can take the individual steps collectively pivotal to addressing the problem. CAQM was notified on November 5, almost in the middle of the November 1-15 period when the crisis typically peaks. Experts said the move was ill-timed, and amounted to reinventing the wheel at a time when the problem is most acute. Over the following weeks, many of these concerns were borne out as the authority admitted it needed time to familiarise itself with the problem and the machinery that exists at present. It was on November 13 that CAQM asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to coordinate efforts.

More than a month later, there is still confusion about which agency has what sort of role in combating the problem. With the previous SC-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority dissolved, central and state pollution control boards — the agencies that issue directions — have lacked clear policy guidelines for preemptive and mitigating measures. One of the examples of this has been the lack of any curbs on construction work this year (although such a measure has been complicated by the Covid-19 lockdown earlier in the year). Last year, construction work — one of the most significant contributors of dust — was banned for most part of the winter.

While it is understandable that any new agency will require time to come up to speed with a problem, Delhi and its neighbourhood should not need to submit itself to the mercy of the weather — at present the only factor that appears to mitigate the problem.

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