Fine the rulers

  • 30/01/2001

Just a small story in the Business Standard about Europe, but with big implications. The story says that the European Commission has asked the European Court of Justice to approve a fine of us $159,000 per day on Britain for not cleaning up its dirty beaches. That amounts to about us $58 million (or Rs 267 crore) a year. The commission has been fighting with Britain for the past 15 years over its dirty beaches. The British government is unhappy with the commission and says it is doing a lot. But then which government doesn't! The commission has also asked the court to approve a fine of us $354,000 a day on Germany for not implementing rules on environmental impact assessment.

So what is so great about this story? Just that even governments can be fined for what they are supposed to do, but usually don't. As a citizen of India I am obviously interested in the performance of the Indian government. If there were such a system in India, just imagine how much public money would go into it. Our legislators are some of the most prolific in the world when it comes to passing laws; but probably the worst in implementing them. They create a masterplan backed by legislation, but polluting industrial units will operate cheek by jowl with schools and houses. They have passed an air pollution act, but there is no action plan to control pollution in any city. The country has a wildlife protection act, but all our endangered species are in dire straits. The water pollution control act should give us clean rivers, but literally every small and medium river is a filthy drain. The list is endless. The only species thriving in this mess is people like us: environmentalists and wildlife lovers.

In the us , too, the Clean Air Act says each state government has to have an action plan with clear deadlines to achieve air quality standards. States that delay the implementation don't get any support from the federal government for transport-related infrastructure, like highways. A few years ago the city of Atlanta was unable to meet its air quality improvement targets. It was delaying the construction of a rail system for racist reasons - the metro would increase the access of blacks to lilywhite areas. The city was threatened with cancellation of federal aid. If there were such a provision in India, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would have to stop all Central assistance for making roads to each and every state of the country. He would have to shelve his ambitious national highway project.

It is difficult to imagine such accountability from our politicians. Why would they ever want such a thing and then face embarrassment all the time? It is here that the courts can play a role. The Supreme Court (sc) has been at its wit's end trying to clean up Delhi's environs. Its efforts to get the Yamuna cleaned up have reached nowhere. It has been hearing a case for more than 10 years now for cleaning up Delhi's air. As nothing was happening, it ordered the Union government to set up a special agency, the Environmental Pollution Control Authority, for the National Capital Region. One of its functions is to monitor the implementation of court orders and keep it informed through periodic reports. On the advice of the authority, the court gave the Delhi government 20 months to convert all eight-year-old buses to compressed natural gas (cng) and another 12 months to convert all buses to cng . After the first deadline of March 31, 2000, the court grounded all eight-year-old buses, leaving passengers stranded. The second deadline of March 31, 2001, will also be missed. The Delhi government keeps saying that companies cannot supply so many cng buses in such a short period, even as it keeps the companies guessing by making confused statements about the feasibility of converting to cng . Thus, industries opposed to cng conversion keep playing their games. So what will happen this time? Will the court order all buses off the road?

More recently, the court lost its cool towards the disregard of its orders to relocate polluting industries out of residential areas. A short deadline was set and a decision holding up the chief secretary for contempt was kept pending. All hell broke loose. The bureaucracy's ham handed efforts to close down all industrial units, polluting or otherwise, led to riots. Former chief minister Madan Lal Khurana has been going around asking for the definition of a polluting unit. Amazing! The fellow has headed a government entrusted with implementation of the law of the land. He doesn't know his basics. As chief minister did he ever care to read the air and water pollution control acts? Indeed, he didn't, and that is the crux of the problem. Politicians like him worry about vote banks, not the law of the land. The result: the Supreme Court is forced to create a crisis to get its orders implemented.

The way out is simple. Learn from the European Commission. Next time the court gives an order it should add a rider: if the order is not met with, the government responsible will have to pay a fine of Rs 10 lakh a day, 10 per cent of which will come out of the pockets of irresponsible bureaucrats and ministers. Believe me, you will see action. There will be no public crisis, only a crisis for our politicians and bureaucrats. The courts can use this money to spruce up the judicial system so that more cases can be heard against the government. Wouldn't that be wonderful! We fervently hope one of the judges will heed this advice.

-Anil Agarwal.

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