Over eighty per cent of inhabitants in the Global South are exposed to detrimental air quality as these areas fail to meet the air quality level prescribed by WHO guideline. The Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project released The State of Global Air Report 2019, representing striking contemporary data on ill effects of air pollution on human health worldwide. South Asia is under the highest risk, with India at the top of the chart for being home to some of the most hazardous cities in the world. As per the five-year National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) report, launched in January 2019 by the Ministry of Environment in India, 102 cities fall below the prescribed ambient air quality. However, even after a year into force, the NCAP is yet to change the hazy picture.
At the onset of the modern era of negotiations for protection of the environment, the Stockholm Declaration established that human health is linked to the right to live in a clean and healthy environment, making a way for adopting a rights-based methodology for protection of the environment. Today, the right to clean environment forms part of Sustainable Development Goals, is recognized as a fundamental human right, and also adopted by several nations in their Constitutions.
UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment, David Boyd, insisted in his report that air pollution poses a great threat to the enjoyment of human rights globally as it is responsible for claiming over 7 million lives worldwide out of which 600,000 are premature deaths. Alone it has surpassed the combined total deaths every year from AIDs, HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, with India suffering the maximum number of fatalities.
Even though the NCAP filled the void for a coordinated national approach to improve India’s air quality, lack of legal backing and a strong mandate renders it a toothless tiger. The mere advisory nature of the programme and lack of a penalty for non-compliance as per polluter pays principle has raised several doubts over the targets it seeks to attain. Further, there are no specific guidelines on the budgetary allocation to the programme. This can prove to be a major stumbling block because the programme cannot bring effective changes without adequate financial support.
NCAP lays down a very low target to be achieved by 2024, without a clear set of instructions for states to follow in order to reach the target. It concentrates on a utopian roadmap, leaving out regional emissions and fails to implement a bottom-up approach essential for addressing persistent environmental pollution issues. Smog and farm fires in India in Winter 19-20 made the air quality worse than previously reported, highlighting the major drawbacks in the programme.
The lack of political will to deal with pollution is often fueled by an abstract threat to development: the case of India is no different. On the brighter side, by implementing the NCAP the government has certainly addressed the need to prevent and reduce air pollution. Now there lies an additional responsibility on state governments, businesses, cities and local authorities to commit to act to beat air pollution through proper implementation.
Sky has never been so blue: the current lockdown in India due to COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented drop in the air pollution levels, leaving experts to ponder upon the need for stricter rules to safeguard the lives of millions of Indians from the unseen threat. It is nature’s indication to adapt to mandatory sustainable industrial practices in India and eliminate the gauze of smog forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Astha Pandey is an undergraduate student at Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur. She is an avid reader and her research interests lie in areas of International Environmental Law, Constitutional Law and International Human Rights Law.