March 28, 2017, was a landmark day for clean air supporters in India when the Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of  public health over commercial interests. The statement that the Court made regarding the health of people being far more crucial than commercial interests of  manufacturers or the loss that they might likely suffer, was promptly followed by the halting of sales and registration of all BS-III vehicle's (old, highly polluting technology) across India. In fact, it is expected to be in effect starting April 1, 2017; showing a clear priority for public health over economic interests.
On the other hand, coal based thermal power generation, also accounting for a large share of pollution across the country, depicts another story. In December 2015, for the first time, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified new emission standards for SO2, NOx and Hg[2]. The notification of the emission standards in 2015 was an acknowledgement of the fact that, coal power plants greatly contribute to the increasing air pollution levels across the country, and that it was imperative to control the highly polluting substances. But then, news articles and statements made by government authorities suggested the dilution of the very same emission standards or  even a delay in the implementation date[3].

Coal based thermal power plant in India

What is most worrying in the entire debate about the notification and enforcement of emission standards is that, despite categorically mentioning in the notification itself that all units of coal based power plants must meet the limits within two years from the date of publication of the notification, many power plant units have still delayed the process of implementation of the standards.

The Supreme Court’s judgement gives us hope that public health will be given priority over commercial interests and this would not only be restricted to the transportation sector but will reciprocate to the entire thermal power generation sector, and all other sectors that contribute to the deteriorating air quality across the country that has resulted in this national health emergency.

On March 30th, a collaborative, non-violent demonstration by a group of volunteers and activists representing Greenpeace India, Care4Air and Help Delhi Breathe gathered together calling on the Environment Minister, Anil Madhav Dave, to challenge all attempts at relaxing or diluting the Thermal Power Plants emission standards. The activists who were dressed in oversized lung-shaped costumes to visually represent the impacts of worsening air pollution, along with over 105241 citizen’s petition, was brought to Minister Dave, and handed over to Mr Mehta who is the Joint Secretary at MOEFCC. We were assured  that the emission norms for thermal power plants as notified on December 7, 2015, will not be diluted.

Activists holding placards raise their concern

The government should come forward as the guardian of the people and the environment to make sure that the notified emission standards for coal based thermal power plants are implemented as soon as possible and also frame a larger robust Clean Air Action Plan for India. But for now, there is hope.

Sunil Dahiya is a Campaigner at Greenpeace India