Bare acts, no action

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 15 April 1999

A few years ago, at a public meeting organised by the Centre for Science and Environment on air pollution, T N Seshan -- who retired in 1997 as the chief election commissioner of India -- had jokingly pointed out that there are more laws in India per square inch of its land area than almost anywhere else in the world. In that sense, the Indian parliament has indeed been a prolific and highly productive institution. But despite the plethora of these paper tigers, India's governance still remains extremely poor.

A few simple measures should be sufficient to make a dramatic improvement. I am not sure if anyone will take note of these ideas. But what is the harm in writing about them. Their fate will not be any worse off than most of our paper laws. My suggestion is that the parliament should start a procedure called Regulatory Impact Analysis ( ria ) under which every law should be carefully scrutinised for its effectiveness after a fixed period of, say, five years. And, if the analysis shows that the law has proved to be ineffective then it should get automatically scrapped. In other words, every law should have a ria and a 'sunset clause' if it proves to be ineffective.

In this way, the number of laws will remain manageable and the sham that India has effective laws would be exposed. It would be a great idea to set up a special bench of the Supreme Court simply to undertake ria s and pass judgement on the effectiveness of laws. And in order to hold the party in power accountable for poor implementation of its laws, the Constitution should provide for the automatic resignation of the government if, say five laws got scrapped during its tenure. This would truly send our politicians rummaging through our scrappy law books and try to make more effective laws.

Let us take a look at India's wonderful air pollution control act. One would assume that since India has such an act, there would also be a programme to implement the act and thereby ensure that air pollution is controlled. But if you think so, you are living in some dreamland. Today in India, there is a lot of talk about Delhi being the fourth most polluted city in the world. But this is only because who monitors a clutch of about 20 cities and Delhi figures fourth in that list. On the other hand, if we look at air pollution levels in Indian towns, as monitored in India, then Delhi comes out quite clean. There are numerous cities and towns in India, which are much worse than Delhi. Even towns like Dehra Dun which were once exceptionally clean are becoming toxic dumps. And the situation is steadily worsening.

Despite this growing mayhem, the air pollution act does not provide for any government action to control it. There is no action in any Indian city to control air pollution except Delhi where all the action is coming from the venerable judges of the Supreme Court who are struggling hard to develop an effective action programme.

Let us compare our act with the us clean air act. Firstly, the air quality standards are set in that country. In other words, the quality of air that citizens should breathe, are part of the act and therefore legally enforceable. Our act has nothing of the sort. Secondly, the act states that the federal government and the state government have to develop action plans to achieve these air quality targets. Our act again remains silent on the matter. Thirdly, the act provides deadlines by which state governments have to start implementing these action plans. If they fail to do so, the act provides for the federal government to move in and implement an action plan. This is treated like a slap in the face of the state government. Moreover, this provides ngo s an opportunity to take their state government to court if it is dilly-dallying on air pollution control and request federal intervention. The wheels immediately start rolling. Federal officials start leaning on state officials to get them moving, failing which they would have to take over. Of course, our act has no such provisions. Finally, the act is updated periodically in the us and air quality targets steadily improved.

Every environmental law in the us works in a similar manner. Once particles in diesel exhaust are declared a 'toxic air contaminant', the state is bound by legal deadlines and procedures to ensure that they are reduced or eliminated from the air. Once a species is declared endangered, then the government must develop and implement an action plan to protect it. On 16 March, 1999, the us government declared nine threatened salmon populations in the northwestern corner of the country as endangered. This declaration means that the government will now have to undertake what could be the biggest and most expensive rescue effort in the 26-year history of the Endangered Species Act. This effort will inevitably include higher taxes to clean up hundreds of rivers and streams. There will also be a buying up of open spaces in crucial watersheds to prevent their exploitation, tough restrictions on new construction, farming and logging, and possibly even decommissioning of government and private dams that prevent salmon migration upstream.

Therefore it is possible to get better protection as a fish or an insect under the us endangered species act than we would as a human being under the Indian Air Pollution Act. Let us then just scrap it.

---- Anil Agarwal

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.