Despite Worsening Air Quality, India’s Capital Fails to Take Action Against Polluters

A New Delhi resident walks through thick smog in November 2016.

A New Delhi resident walks through thick smog in November 2016. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Air quality in India’s capital of Delhi has gotten progressively worse in recent years, with pollution levels measuring 30 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines. But despite the region’s worsening air quality, not a single case was filed against industries exceeding pollutant quotas between 2014 and 2016, according to new data by the National Crime Records Bureau.

The country’s 1981 Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act  gives state pollution control boards the power to prosecute businesses for emissions violations, according to Climate Home News. If found guilty, Indian courts can order top-level managers to pay fines or serve up to six years in prison.

Last year, pollution control boards in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand filed 25 cases against industries, according to the new data. At least 35 people were arrested as a result, Climate Home News reported. In 2014 and 2015, 98 cases were filed across the country.

Control boards in Delhi, however, brought none of these cases. The city has two power plants, more than 20 large factories, and dozens of clusters of industrial activity.

“The pollution control boards do not want to initiate any legal action,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and activist in India. “This is the reason we haven’t seen substantial improvement in the city’s air quality for years. Everything that is being done at the policy level is that broad guidelines are being issued. Where are the legal actions against the polluters for violating the law?”

Delhi’s dangerously high levels of air pollution — which reached a 20-year high last year — are the result of industrial and vehicle emissions, as well as the burning of nearby crop waste. To deal with the problem, the region has enacted driving bans, temporarily shut down power stations, stopped construction projects, and asked residents to stay indoors. Doctors last month equated breathing Delhi air to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.