Since December 1, 2014, the 13 regional transport offices (RTOs) in Delhi have stopped registering vehicles that are more than 15 years old. This was based on a directive from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that was issued after a “stakeholder” meeting to implement its November 26 order. As a result, an estimated 29 lakh private vehicles will go off Delhi’s roads. Out of the city’s 60 lakh private vehicles, nearly 25 lakh are four wheelers, the rest being two wheelers like bikes and scooters.
The tribunal’s decision stemmed from the view that the level of particulate matter in the environment was too high and posed a substantial threat to the quality of life in the city. Many national environmental groups, including the Centre for Science and Environment, have welcomed the decision and the NGT’s 14-point action agenda for Delhi. But they have done so cautiously, given the problems of equity and implementation.
To begin with, there is scepticism over enforcement. At the stakeholder meeting and even afterwards, many Delhi government officials expressed doubts about whether the authorities had enough capacity to scrap 15-year-old vehicles in Delhi. It was believed that, with so many manpower problems, dealing with such a large number of vehicles on a single day would be administratively problematic. The Delhi Pollution Board is said to have expressed doubts over whether such measures should apply to Delhi without active cooperation from neighbouring states, since environmental threats need an integrated, not a piecemeal, approach.
Some of these anxieties are legitimate, though it is not clear whether the tribunal has considered them closely. But it is also true that pollution in Delhi has reached unsustainable limits. And it must be said, in the tribunal’s defence, that any cut-off period would seem arbitrary to some and pose similar enforcement problems. After all, the Supreme Court has ordered the deregistration of 15-year-old commercial vehicles since 1988.
But the NGT order this time is massive in its overall impact. It affects a large number of vehicles and, quite apart from the problem of enforcement, raises some grave equity issues. One issue is the measure of harm done to the environment by the old system, where licences were renewed for five additional years if the private vehicle-owners were able to negotiate a fitness certificate. What is to be done now for a vehicle whose life is extended by another five years under the old system? Was there such corruption in the system that fitness certificates were issued to the highest bidder, regardless of whether the vehicle was roadworthy? Wasn’t it a problem of routine administrative corruption, then, rather than of environmental degradation? Can we combat corruption through environmental jurisprudence? Assuming that it was a grave issue of degradation, wouldn’t a phased vehicular easing out be a better solution than an all-at-once approach?
The second issue is to do with the finitude of all commodities. Cars and other vehicles do not and should not last forever. The days when an old car or scooter may be allowed to pollute without question should be behind us. That said, outside the so-called neo-middle class, not many persons or families can afford a vehicle, especially a car, every 15 years. They might apply for bank loans even for scooters. Even if we grant that such a situation means vehicles will ultimately pollute, we must also acknowledge the need for clean, cheap and safe public transport. That this need is hardly satisfied by the Indian state is an understatement. How, then, does the tribunal arrange its environmental priorities?
There is a third issue, that of balancing the interests of the environment and the right to life, livelihood and property. This is a very difficult balance indeed. On the one hand, there are the basic human rights to life, liberty, livelihood and property. On the other, there is the right to life in a clean and healthy environment for all. Any order directing a sudden deregistration of 15-year-old vehicles deprives a substantial number of private vehicle-owners of the right to livelihood and property. Overnight, what was moveable property became a piece of scrap metal with minimal value — in some cases, none at all. And suddenly, scrap dealers have to devise ways in which to pulp the vehicles and find a market for them, and the manufacturers will have to adjust to a new production schedule.
As important as rights are the juridical powers and social consequences that surround any public decision. For example, what is the alternate action planned for those who operate the informal urban economy? Environmental and ecological decisions may be rights-friendly, but they should, as far as possible, avoid the impression of being punitive for some.
It may be argued that such costs, including rights, are implicit in any environmental measure. That may well be true in the long run. Yet, environmental protection also entails fairness in decision-making, not just judicial fiats. The NGT could actually have hurried slowly — it could have given a wider opportunity to vehicular publics to participate in the decision-making and acknowledged the need for citizen participation in combating environmental degradation. It could also have negotiated a grace period to implement the decision.
By going about its decision in the way that it did, the tribunal may have given the impression of judicial activism. In reality, it deployed a sledgehammer tactic. Judicial activism must always distinguish itself from judicial despotism. Tough decisions have to be taken by our justices, but such decisions should breathe meaning into the rule of law. They should also be imbued with social meaning, recognising the need for citizen participation in environmental protection