Bhure Lal, Sunita Narain must go

   By Ravi Shanker Kapoor ,  09-Dec-2018
Bhure Lal, Sunita Narain must go

The Supreme Court-monitored EPCA has failed spectacularly and should be reconstituted

Corrupt politicians can be prosecuted and thrown behind bars, even if it doesn’t happen very frequently in our country. Their gross incompetence is often punished by the voter, though. Venal and inefficient bureaucrats and cops also have their comeuppance sometimes. Regulators have their terms and are subject to criticism. Ditto with judges. All of them have their jurisdictions, terms, and tenures. But there is a set of people whose remits, terms, and tenures are unlimited. They are the members of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority or EPCA. 

Constituted by the Supreme Court in 1998, the EPCA is mandated to protect and improve the environment in the national Capital region (NCR). It is supposed to assist the apex court in these matters. In the last two decades, governments have come and gone, as also have Chief Justices of India—18 of them—but the EPCA is still there with the same chairman, former bureaucrat Bhure Lal. Similarly, Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), is a permanent fixture of the EPCA. 

It seems that even if smog depopulates the national Capital, the EPCA with these grandees will continue to assist the Supreme Court!

With air pollution having become uncontrollable in the NCR, especially in winters, politicians and bureaucrats are slammed by everybody for their ineptitude and callousness, and rightly so, but the same cannot be said about the EPCA. Its failure is clear as day, but seldom do public intellectuals criticize it. 

Lal recently spoke to The Times Of India (November 12) in an interview. On the question of stubble burning in northern states and the absence of a solution to the problem, he said, “There are certain factors over which you have no control. You cannot control wind direction; it’s natural; this is not governed by man. As far as stubble burning is concerned efforts have been made. Central government allocated Rs 1,200 crore to provide subsidy to convert paddy straw into fertilizers. A large number of people have applied for this subsidy and they have been given it. Now, it is a cultural change, even farmers have started moving in this direction, in due course of time this problem will get minimized further.”

Is it for such banality that the highest court of the land appointed him? Doesn’t everybody know that the wind direction is natural and can’t be controlled by man? Don’t we know what the government is doing? Was the EPCA set up to offer running commentary on current affairs? Or to inform the judges about the “cultural change” that has started taking place? 

As if the banality were not enough, Lal came up with the outrageous recommendation: “We have no option but to consider measures that restrict private vehicles.” In a letter to the Central Pollution Control Board, he wrote that SINCE vehicles contribute 40 per cent of the total emission load in Delhi and about 30 per cent in the NCR, just removing trucks and other commercial vehicles that run on diesel would not be enough.

“Since Delhi is greatly responsible for its poor air quality this does not mean that air quality could not once again decline in the coming months. It is now clear that the region’s own sources of pollution are greatly responsible for the poor air quality we have seen in the past 15 days,” Lal wrote. In short, the victim is the villain.

His mindset exemplifies the authorities’ approach to any problem, which is to use coercion as the first resort. Persuasion, discussion, debate, and compromise are and should be the hallmarks of a liberal democracy. But those who matter are not interested in persuasion, discussion, etc. Why persuade when you can bulldoze them? Why coax when you can coerce them?

While Lal is focused on forcing the people to give up private vehicles, Narain uses the EPCA to further her Leftwing agenda. She has been a campaigner all her life. How could a person with a partisan attitude be part of a Supreme Court-monitored body is a question that nobody asks. She campaigned brazenly against cola companies on the grounds that their products contained pesticides. She has never done anything against adulterated food, synthetic milk, etc., because these are not sexy subjects. These did not involve multinational corporations. Her targets are always big companies, be it Coke and Pepsi or auto majors. 

In her scheme of things, those who disagree with her should have no say in public affairs. So, the Mashelkar Committee’s final report on the auto fuel policy, released in 2003, was useless. Her magazine Down to Earth commented, “While the interim report, released in January 2002 was extremely weak and uncaring about public health objectives, the final draft is only slightly better with mere cosmetic changes.” Further, it wrote, “the time frame and deadlines fixed by the committee seem ineffectual, even if they are finally implemented… The Mashelkar committee’s final report dilutes even what the industry proposes. The road map of the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam), which was presented in 2000, commits the industry to meet Euro III and Euro IV emission standards by 2004 and 2007 respectively. For Euro IV in commercial vehicles, it mentions the deadline as 2008.”

Narain, whom The Economist calls a lobbyist, not just trashed the report by the eminent scientist and the former director general of a premier institute, the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, but also insinuated that he was pleasing the auto industry. 

Similarly, she rubbished a 2015 report by the environment watchdog, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which didn’t have many good things to say about compressed natural gas (CNG), which she campaigns for. So, Down to Earth’s verdict over the report was swift and stern: “the finding is flawed.”

But in the same year, a CSIR study also found that the CNG-run buses in Delhi emitted harmful nano-carbon particles which could cause cancer. CSIR’s Director General M.O. Garg alerted the Central government for further follow-up action.

Cornered, Narain tried to equivocate. In an article in Business Standard on August 19, 2015, she wrote, “Some doctors claim, however, such ultrafine [nano-carbon] particles are most likely to get exhaled instead of staying in the respiratory system.” Which doctors? No mention. She then contradicted herself: “A science-based and peer-reviewed non-controversial verdict on this issue is vital to guide the public policies on vehicular fuel. Rather than mandating one fuel or the other, the imperative is to induce a switch among auto-makers and fuel producers to less-polluting versions.”

But, Ms Narain, you have been promoting CNG over diesel all along, haven’t you? Why should we believe that everybody, from prominent scientists to the CSIR and the environment watchdog, is wrong and you are right on matters related to science? You need to be reminded that you are not even a scientist. 

The point that needs to be emphasized here is that Narain, a campaigner for CNG, shouldn’t be dictating environment policy. Her views, as also those of other public intellectuals, should be respected, but she certainly can’t be a member of the EPCA. Nor should Bhure Lal find a place in the committee. Both have failed spectacularly.

Therefore, the need of the hour is the disbanding of the EPCA as it exists right now. It needs to be reconstituted, if it ought to be there in the first place.